A New Streetscape

A Firm Foundation for your District

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A new, improved streetscape can yield powerful results for your commercial district. Often a multiyear, multi-phased endeavor, a new streetscape is the culmination of a long process that finally provides visible results. The ensuing look provides a clean, neat appearance that exudes pride. Pedestrian pathways are easily accessible to everyone, and the stage is set for success. The business community renews its own efforts to make storefronts look as good as the street does.

Durant, Oklahoma, is currently in Phase IV of its downtown streetscape project. The outcome of Phases I, II, and III has been instrumental in stimulating significant improvements to this thriving downtown. The district has new sidewalks and street amenities, underground utility wires, a community public space with a performance stage, an enhanced parking lot, and improved rear entrances to businesses. As a result, the downtown is seeing more activities and many more people. The increased foot traffic is a result of people feeling comfortable in the heart of the community again.

I outlined the entire process of Durant's streetscape project in previous Main Street News articles. I discussed securing a funding source, selecting a consultant to design your new infrastructure, completing the design phase of your project, preparing for construction, and constructing new sidewalks. To come full circle, the final article in this series will cover the results Durant is expecting after construction is completed.

Laying a Firm Foundation

Following the streetscape construction, downtown Durant is alive and well. Occupancy in the district is higher than ever. Since the Main Street program began in 1997, the occupancy rate has hovered between 83 percent and the current 88 percent. The business mix today is better, and businesses seem more solid and stable with a lower rate of turnover.

Another positive economic indicator is the increase in rental rates: since 1997, they have risen $1-1.50 per square foot. As far as real estate goes, a building that sold for $70,000 five years ago was resold in 2009 for $170,000. After the second phase of the streetscape project, downtown Durant experienced an average monthly increase of 2.59 percent in private reinvestment.

In 2003, Durant had 109 building rehabilitations and 39 facade improvements. Today those numbers have shot up to 166 and 93, respectively.

Main Street is a comprehensive revitalization approach, but these economic indicators can be attributed in part to our new streetscape, which is creating an appealing environment in which businesses can thrive.

While doing a recent interview for a statewide magazine, I realized that the new streetscape has created a snowball effect. The writer asked questions that clarified the picture for me. When asked "What's the most important thing that's happened in your downtown since your program began?" I answered "the streetscape" without missing a beat.

Of course, the writer didn't have the same background as those of us who deal with commercial district revitalization everyday, so he was having trouble seeing how concrete helped us turn the corner. Being perceptive, he figured out that we had literally "laid a firm foundation."

Along with pristine new sidewalks, a new streetscape normally includes landscaping and amenities such as benches, trash receptacles, and bicycle racks. A more extensive project might include a one-way street conversion, traffic-calming elements, and new parking schemes. These improvements make Main Street patrons feel comfortable visiting the district. ADA improvements also make the district safer – whether they improve accessibility for a mother pushing a baby stroller or for an individual with limited eyesight or mobility.

"Being someone who relies on a wheelchair to get around, I very much appreciate the attention the Durant downtown area is paying to handicap accessibility," says Robert Howard, a local resident and employee of Southeastern Oklahoma State University. "Wheelchair patrons, although a small minority, have special needs, and I am proud to live in a community where such strong efforts have been made to meet these needs."

In addition to the visible infrastructure improvements, property and business owners are making their own improvements. It's like getting new shoes and then needing a new dress to go with them. Facade renovations have increased since completion of the sidewalk construction. Building signs are also being replaced with signage more appropriate for the businesses and the district.

The story doesn't stop with building exteriors, however. Stores in Durant have never had better window displays. Some business owners were already creating attractive windows, but the bar continues to rise as merchants compete in a silent but friendly contest to make their stores as visually appealing as the street.

Some establishments showed creativity in ways we had never seen. Salons and real estate agents have joined retailers in the race for the best – one salon incorporated a tire swing to capture the summertime spirit. A furniture store that previously just stacked mattresses in its windows was inspired to add furniture along with photographs, lamps, books, throws, and other accents. The transformation created warm, inviting windows that earned the store the Best Window Display award from Oklahoma Main Street.

To build on the momentum created by vibrant window displays, the Main Street Design Committee promotes themes throughout the downtown to unify local businesses and show what's happening around the community. For example, to help promote the outdoor ice skating rink last winter, businesses adopted displays with snow, snowflakes, twinkle lights, and a skater silhouette. Even service businesses began supporting the current theme – including establishments that don't rely on retail sales and had never before decorated their windows.

The merchandising inside the stores is terrific as well. Downtown Durant is becominga magnet for owners skilled in this important aspect of retailing. Some new businesses have joined the mix, and their owners have all realized the importance of merchandise displays.

Customers don't have to be persuaded to come downtown. Many visit the district to see what's new in the ever-changing window displays. More businesses are carrying products shoppers want and are sharing customer traffic with other stores throughout the district. Business owners believe that people who shop in downtown Durant will visit the district more often if there is a cluster of shops in which they can browse.

Foot traffic is rising and so are sales. The traffic and resulting revenue make downtown buildings more marketable to savvy business owners who want to locate in an area with a high concentration of potential shoppers.

Gzim Krasniqi, owner of Roma Italian Restaurant, is one business owner who took advantage of the marketability of the downtown. In December 2004, just as Streetscape Phase I was completed, he was driving through Durant on the way to a nearby community to open a restaurant. He saw a vacant building at First and Main, and the rest is history.

Krasniqi met friendly people in Durant and liked what he saw downtown. In the four years that Roma has been open, it has transformed nightlife in Durant. Shops near Roma advertise to diners through their window displays, gaining more exposure to a potentially new clientele.

"I wouldn't want to be anywhere else," Krasniqi says. "I've had many opportunities to move my business, but I want to be in downtown Durant," something he has proven by purchasing and renovating neighboring buildings to expand the restaurant.  In 2008, Krasniqi received the Oklahoma Main Street New Business of the Year award for the impact Roma has had on Durant's downtown.

"On a personal note: To those of you undecided about undertaking a similar streetscape improvement process, I would not hesitate to recommend proceeding. It has made all the difference in the world for us. Durant has a lot going for it — wonderful business owners, property owners with vision, terrific partners, and volunteers who are committed to the four-point approach. All of these factors matter in the comprehensive revitalization of our downtown. Without them, a shiny new street would simply be that — a cosmetic improvement."

 Removal of Sky Trash

The elimination of "sky trash" – overhead electrical wires – has dramatically changed Durant. Downtown is cleaner and more attractive, for both shoppers and photographers.

Originally, we were told that removal of the electrical lines and transformers would be cost prohibitive. Wanting to be sure all options were explored, streetscape project coordinators obtained a price tag for this part of the project, and fortunately it proved affordable.

Burying overhead electrical lines was quite an undertaking, but well worth the effort. The plan was to bring the utility lines to the meter box, but this left a gap between the overhead and underground service. This would leave the businesses without electricity. To fix the problem, some work had to be done on private property. Spending public funds and working on private property are not allowed for city-funded projects. Project personnel had to contact each owner for his or her consent and financial participation so the city could complete this phase of the project.

The Main Street program was able to fill a financial gap as well as obtain approval and limited financial participation by owners of 20 properties surrounding the square. The average conversion cost $1,255 per meter. Fortunately, the Main Street program had money in the bank for a special purpose after an extremely successful bull-riding fundraiser. Otherwise, the conversion would not have been possible. It's been said that the best thing about the Phase II Streetscape is what you don't see.

Creating a Sense of Place

The entire process from streetscape construction to merchandising has helped create a sense of place. History can be accessed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year on Market Square. A four-sided monument and eight pavers tell the story of important people, facts, events, and places in Durant's history. The Red River Arts Council paid for half the cost of the monument in their first effort at public art. Since that time, a centennial clock celebrating the State of Oklahoma's first hundred years (1907-2007) has been added. In July 2009, the Red River Arts Council put five painted horses in the downtown; the group hopes this will lead to the placement of many other horses throughout the city.

Another important aspect of Phase II was construction of a stage, which enabled us able to launch Music on Market Square the summer after Phase II was completed. This free weekly concert series held on Thursday nights during the summer has attracted audiences of approximately 100 people. The concert venue resembles an old drive-in theater where people sit on the grass, on benches, in lawn chairs, in the car, or in the back of their pickup truck.

The setting seems appropriate as Market Square has always been a parking lot. In early days, people pulled up in wagons led by teams of mules. Others rode up on horses. The lot has always been a gathering spot, and Durant Main Street is ensuring that it stays that way.

Skating on the Square was launched last year when Durant Main Street hosted it during the Christmas holiday. Skaters came from 96 Oklahoma cities and 106 other cities throughout the United States. People came from as far away as Africa, London, Canada, and Mexico, and locals chose the spot to celebrate occasions ranging from company parties to birthday celebrations.

Market Square offers a special venue for events and community gatherings. In the year after we completed it, 50 events were held there. It's a place where memories are made and bonds are formed between downtown and the younger generation.

For this reason, even though a streetscape project focuses primarily on the design aspect of the Main Street Four-Point Approach®, it also affects the goals of the Promotion Committee. When more events are held downtown, more people are exposed to local businesses and make visiting the district part of their normal routines.

The Organization Committee is also involved because volunteers are necessary to run the events in Market Square. And the Economic Restructuring Committee's work is brought into the equation to strengthen local businesses and ensure the marketability of buildings lining the new streetscape.

Unavoidable Rough Spots

In fairness, a rosy picture can't be painted for all aspects of a streetscape project. Previous articles have discussed issues encountered during planning and construction. With proper planning and an understanding of what to expect, you can be better prepared to deal with what comes your way. But, some things are inevitable:

Business turnover will always occur. A Main Street manager must realize that businesses will come and go. While we must do our best to ensure that they all have the tools necessary to survive, marginal businesses will eventually close and generally aren't a strong part of a commercial district's business mix. Some owners may claim that sidewalk construction drove them out of business. Although there is no way to determine the true reason in such cases, it's unlikely that the streetscape project will be the only cause.

Many businesses may not stock their shelves properly, and this could affect them afterward. The owner of Marie's, a ladies apparel store in Durant, stresses that retailers must buy inventory during construction as they normally would. Retail consultant Rick Segel agrees. "A telltale sign that a business is in trouble is lack of merchandise. Does the store look like it's closing? Is it full of merchandise?"

Accidents are likely to occur while people are getting familiar with the new sidewalks. Even people who are well aware of and excited about the new sidewalks tend to step off or trip on the new curbs – even with orange cones, yellow paint, and railings everywhere. However, accidents also happen on the old sidewalks; people just don't talk about them as much. You can use cones and markers to pinpoint problem areas.

Remember, even when there are problems, things tend to even out after a while. Keep the end goal in mind and the positive results other communities have experienced.

Buzz Throughout the Community

The buzz about downtown Durant continues to grow. The use of online tools such as Facebook and Twitter have helped tremendously. People returning to Durant after years away are always surprised and pleased at the growth, strength, and appearance of the downtown.

Positive results have come out of the streetscape project. People were encouraged to use rear entrances during construction. Shoppers continue to access businesses this way because of the convenience. Traffic on Main can be heavy, and parking spots difficult to locate. Customers now use off-street parking lots more often because business owners have realized the value of having two entrances and have made improvements to encourage shoppers to use both.

Community leaders and residents recognize and appreciate downtown's new look. Kathy Hendrick, a Durant Main Street board member, points out that the "streetscape created an ambience and feel that downtown hasn't had in many years. Now people are raving about the [district]. Market Square provides activities for citizens and tourists. Downtown is the heartbeat of the community, and Market Square gives downtown a focus. It is embraced and people are proud."

Ingrid Cole has two restaurants: the Roadhouse Bar and Grill and a steakhouse that opened recently for holiday parties and will be fully operational in early 2010. The restaurants are in buildings bordering Market Square. "I just love being by Market Square," says Cole. "I wouldn't want to be anywhere else."

The Roadhouse is moving to new quarters after being displaced by a highway bypass. Ingrid and her husband Adam purchased five storefronts that were vacant before the Market Square redevelopment. Two local businessmen purchased and rehabbed the dilapidated buildings while Market Square was being completed. Soon more than 50 employees will work in these once-vacant buildings.

The benefits of the new streetscape are not limited to the downtown area. Durant's Economic Development Director Tommy Kramer believes that it is "important to have a clean community and a vibrant downtown. It is critical. The streetscape has helped the image of downtown so much."

Kramer describes the visit of an international site locator group that toured five southern Oklahoma cities, including Durant, last September. After touring the industrial site, they wanted to see the downtown. This is a common request by most companies, especially national and international locators. Kramer gave the visitors a tour of downtown to show off the new streetscape and Market Square as well as local businesses. The site selectors were impressed by the downtown's appearance and occupancy rate. Durant is still
in the running as a potential location for this industrial client.

Light at the End of the Tunnel

As a sympathetic Main Street manager, it can be difficult to endure the construction project just as it is a challenge for the business owners to keep smiling. Always keep in mind that the success of your business district is likely to skyrocket once the orange cones and workers have moved on. By maintaining focus and perspective, everyone can come out on the winning side.

Of course, sidewalks alone cannot make the difference - a comprehensive revitalization program that utilizes the Main Street Four-Point Approach® is needed to set the scene for success. Working on all four points in collaboration with partners, volunteers, property owners, and business owners, Durant Main Street is determined to make downtown Durant the best it can be. The new look and the enthusiasm it creates provide an environment where businesses can thrive.