Making downtown a destination

By on February 12, 2009

by Lynn Meredith
Look at the downtown of any of the four villages in the Kaneland area and what do you see? Empty stores fronts, underutilized spaces and vital businesses absenting to the periphery.

Compare that phenomenon to Geneva or DeKalb—towns with vital, active downtowns. What do they have that the Kaneland area doesn’t?

“We created a task force from all facets of the community: businesses, schools, the university, the park district, the hospital. It involved year-long planning to come up with a comprehensive plan to revitalize downtown,” said Jennifer Groce, Executive Director of Re: New DeKalb.

Re: New DeKalb is a private-public partnership dedicated to downtown economic development and revitalization. Former DeKalb mayor Frank Van Buer (deceased) created the program as part of a master plan to make DeKalb a better place to live, work and do business.

The program expands on the Main Street concept developed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Main Street recognizes that a vital downtown is the heart of a successful town.

Started by volunteers and supported by grass roots organizations, Re: New DeKalb required community buy-in and support in order to implement, Groce said. The City Council passed the plan in January 2007.

“We hit the ground running,” Groce said. “We had had eight different revitalization plans since the 1960s, but none of them were comprehensive. We had this feeling that if we don’t do it this time, it’s not going to happen. This is the moment to do it.”

Previous plans had taken one aspect of improvement at a time. One tried to improve the streetscape, another to attract businesses, but none were comprehensive.

According to Dolores Palma in her publication, “Downtown Revitalization Myths,” the first misconception is that if a town improves the sidewalks, landscaping, facades or physical features, the downtown will be revitalized.

“These don’t work in isolation, the entire enhancement effort must be market-driven, rather than physically driven,” Palma writes.

The DeKalb group listened to feedback from the community about what it wanted. In response, they have put in better lighting and reversed the 1970s urban renewal that covered green spaces with concrete by adding trees and landscaping.

“We recognized that we are on a state highway and that we have high traffic. We sought to soften and enhance the pedestrian experience,” Groce said. “We also heard that we needed to address or demolish some eyesores that had been there too long. We did all this while still keeping our historic core.”

Geneva also has a strategic plan to maintain and enhance its downtown. In order to keep the downtown business district’s people-friendly environment, it focused on festivals that draw people downtown and keeping businesses open later and on Sundays. The city chose to keep the Post Office, library and court center in the downtown business district. It keeps the streets and sidewalks pedestrian-friendly and provides a range of housing opportunities, so residents can walk to businesses and services.

Geneva also plans to keep its eclectic and vital business community through a downtown business retention program and a marketing program that encourage a diversity of goods and services.

The Main Street Approach is being applied in both these communities. The approach rests on eight principles of success:
• Comprehensive Approach—No single focus can revitalize a downtown.
• Incremental Changes—Revitalization begins with simple activities and tackles increasingly more complex problems and projects.
• Self-Help—Local leaders must have the will and desire to mobilize local resources and talent.
• Partnerships—Both public and private sectors must work together to achieve common goals.
• Identify and Capitalize on Existing Assests—Capitalize on what makes your downtown unique.
• Quality—Shoe-string budgets reinforce negative images. Choose quality over quantity.
• Change—Better business practices and altered ways of thinking help shift public perceptions.
• Implementation—Show visible results that come from completing projects.

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