Columnist Sarah la Cour: Key ingredients to outstanding downtown

Thursday, February 08, 2018

How do you feel about thinking out of the box, and taking a good look at familiar things from a more objective angle?

That’s what the Business Improvement District board of directors and staff did recently. It was wildly inspiring!

With the help of internationally-acclaimed downtown professional, Roger Brooks, we were able to look at the Amherst downtown with a new lens. He showed examples of what is happening all over the world, both good and bad.

Some were humorous like the town with its “Welcome” sign right next to a “Do Not Enter” sign. Funny but not. We fortunately aren’t that. What we are is on the right track with great successes and renewed energy to forge ahead.

In his presentation, Brooks discussed his “20 Ingredients of an Outstanding Downtown.” Some were familiar to us but he encouraged us to look at them in a different and imaginative way. We were out of our boxes.

He had us keep a scorecard for how we thought we were doing. That was both dynamic and thought-provoking and led to a robust discussion. I will share three of the 20 that ring true for Amherst and the future economic health of downtown.

First, and most critical in my mind, is “living and staying in downtown.” He described this as “condos, apartments, hotels and inns” which is ultimately about people.

They are people who represent the 24/7 economy and are the lifeblood of any downtown. They are the people who live here and who need goods and services easily at hand.

And it includes the people who come to stay in our world-class inns and hotels and want to walk to dinner, hear live music or quickly grab something they forgot to pack. Again, this was not new to us but Brooks brought compelling new insights to the conversation.

Filling our downtown with people significantly improves our economic bottom line (i.e. increased revenue in meals and room taxes). Increased commercial revenue is what can pay for the services that we as a community value and will help lower the residential tax burden.

No matter how you feel about the architecture, I urge you to consider the new buildings in downtown as a necessary part of the equation. The people living in those buildings indicate a significant movement toward Amherst’s increased financial and housing stability.

Hand-in-hand with the addition of more people living and staying in downtown is the second key ingredient which Brooks calls “critical mass.” That is the creation of a broader market for additional and diverse business opportunities within a concentrated geographic area.

Interestingly, Brooks has what he called the 10/10/10 rule which is the clustering of 10 eateries, 10 retail shops and 10 establishments that stay open after 6 p.m. all within a three-block area. What a fascinating concept and a valuable new way of looking at the commercial fabric of downtown Amherst.

The bones of our downtown are strong and this concept provides us with the ability to focus our business development efforts in a new light. We’re out of our box again in a good way.

The third ingredient, and one that combines naturally with the previous two, is “an intimate setting.” The concept is to create a pedestrian-friendly, aesthetically pleasing place where people want to spend time.

In explaining this, Brooks described his theory that people’s first “place” is home, their second is work and their third is downtown. A downtown should be a safe, clean, and cheerful geographic area that provides the appropriate setting for decompressing, socializing, family activities and more.

I’ve only touched on my three highlights from Brooks’ visit, but in stepping out of our boxes, those of us at the Business Improvement District are excited and inspired to continue to be ingenious and creative.

We will have a sharper focus in our efforts to make downtown Amherst everybody’s backyard, living room and play space wrapped with cheerful flowers and bright lights. We look forward to seeing you there!

Sarah la Cour, of Amherst, is executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District.