Creating Positive Perceptions

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As Main Streeters, we’re in the business of creating experiences. Sure, our tools of the trade may be different than most experience-makers. While entertainers use music and dance, we use bricks and mortar, public squares and community events.  But each event, building and business contributes to what a downtown patron perceives about that community.  So what happens to a community that gets a bad rap or falls victim to misconceptions?  It may be crime, a tragic event or natural disaster that changes the perception of a downtown, but what does Main Street do to help perceptions fade and reality shine through?

A popular example of this image vs. reality relationship is the city of Detroit. Detroit hasn’t experienced a natural disaster; the unfortunate decline and sprawl in Detroit has been a man-made one, happening slowly and over 50 years. A lot of the media coverage about Detroit is true. The city has filed for bankruptcy, there is a significant amount of blight, and street lights don’t work in some neighborhoods. But the reality is that Detroit is just as safe as any urban city. By hosting the 2014 National Main Streets Conference, Detroit will be taking another step toward changing the national perception of the reportedly downtrodden city.

A positive image is critical when it comes to community development. Revitalization efforts must constantly work to build a community’s image, and in some cases, change negative perceptions. We see it on a smaller scale in many Main Street communities across the county. Just like those communities, Detroit is working hard to change the negative perceptions in a number of ways. It’s not enough to say that the city is safe and thriving, you must prove it. Luckily, the development going on in downtown Detroit and surrounding areas is doing just that -- changing perceptions through creative investment and development.

Design: Places and Spaces

One way to change perceptions is through light, color and movement. These visual cues reinforce safe experiences in a downtown space.  The job of our design committees is to get our downtowns into good physical shape and create inviting environments for shoppers, residents and visitors by utilizing many of these visual cues. This means taking on projects both big and small, from downtown flower baskets and benches, to streetscape design and façade improvements. Downtown Detroit has really stepped up its game in the area of physical improvements over the past several years.

Green space probably isn’t the first image that comes to mind when you picture downtown Detroit. But you’d be surprised by the city’s public spaces and gathering areas.

Right in the heart of downtown Detroit is Campus Martius Park, a 2.5-acre public park developed by Project for Public Spaces to attract people day and night. The space contains grassy lawns, gravel walkways, and informal seating for over 2,000 people on walls, benches, steps and moveable chairs. Campus Martius is Detroit’s official gathering place, complete with two retractable stages that can be moved into position for events and an ice skating rink that fills much of the park from November to March. Café’ food is served year-round, wireless internet is available, and bocce ball courts provide a unique active use. If that’s not enough, in the spring 150 tons of golf-course bunker sand is brought in to create a downtown beach complete with umbrellas, sand sculptures, and sand volleyball courts. Since the park opened in 2004, not one of the 1,500 chairs has been stolen or vandalized demonstrating that a well-used space discourages crime.

Nearby, the three-mile Detroit Riverwalk offers a great place for jogging, biking or even exploring the city via Segway. The Riverwalk includes William G. Milliken State Park and Harbor, which is Michigan’s first urban park with shore fishing, picnics and a lighthouse. The best part is, it’s just steps away from the GM Renaissance Center, the location of the 2014 National Main Street Conference in May.

Promotion: People and Personality

Our communities must deliver an experience that is comfortable. It’s a lot more than just having a statistically crime free city, but perceiving that the space is inviting and safe when visitors and residents arrive. What is more inviting than a downtown buzzing with activity and people in the streets?  This is where the promotions point of Main Street comes in. Promotion takes many forms, from large scale events to small promotions that get people strolling around the city.

A recent issue of Detroit Unspun explains that Downtown Detroit has experienced a 59 percent increase in the number of college-educated residents under the age of 35, nearly 30 percent more than two-thirds of the nation’s 51 largest cities. Artists, designers, entrepreneurs and other young professionals are taking advantage of low real estate prices, growing career opportunities and a full calendar of unique events that cater to this adventurous demographic.

One unique example of an event that celebrates Detroit’s unique assets while increasing foot traffic is the Detroit Design Festival.  With ground zero of the auto industry being in the heart of the city, there is no shortage of design-driven industries, world-class educational facilities and the country’s highest concentrations of industrial and commercial designers. The event provides an answer to the challenges of the city by connecting creatives and giving them a platform to succeed into future entrepreneurs.

A week of activities all over the city hosted by dozens of organizations, make up a calendar of events celebrating all things design.  From exhibits of emerging artist to the AIA Detroit Annual Architectural Industry Awards, the events get people exploring the city, changing perceptions, and nurturing future industry.

Economic Restructuring: Investment and Creativity

We all know that vacant and desolate storefronts don’t help our positive image. But developing creative uses of vacant spaces can suddenly transform something negative into something fun and exciting. Converting unused or underused commercial space into economically productive property helps boost the profitability of the district and creates a positive perception.

Over the past two years in Detroit many emerging districts have helped to combat vacancy rates and nurture retail and restaurant clusters through pop-up businesses and events. Detroit pop-ups include art galleries, food and beverage cafes, clothing boutiques, tea houses, vegan restaurants, yoga workshops, antique stores, bikes stores and much more. A recent article called Detroit’s Amazing Pop-up Anarchy, explains the success of these pop-ups and how that success has translated to changed perceptions and long-term investment in the city.

The Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, a nonprofit organization, has been instrumental in driving these temporary businesses to the city. These pop-ups help to bring innovation, stability, and eventually, more permanent businesses to the city’s dense areas. The pop-up model allows for entrepreneurs to test the business waters with low risk and investment costs up front so local markets can be evaluated for consumer interest and long-term viability.

Organization: Partners and Storytelling

In Main Street, the organization point establishes consensus and cooperation by building partnerships among the various groups that have a stake in the commercial district. Collaboration with partners that represent a broad cross section of the community helps to bring a wide range of perspectives into downtown revitalization efforts.

Project Lighthouse is a neighborhood watch patrol program designed to keep residents, employees and visitors safe in Detroit. The Detroit Police Department and more than 30 businesses in the Central Business District have partnered together to launch this program to provide shelter, aid, safety, information and potential lodging for those in temporary need of assistance. This program will enhance the safety and security of the downtown.  Each participating business, known as a Lighthouse, has security personnel available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to assist those in need. With a simple phone call, help is provided to anyone who is lost, separated from friends, having vehicle trouble or has other safety concerns.

A Michigan Metropolitan Information Center study has routinely shown that crime in Downtown Detroit is much lower than national, state and metro averages. Despite low crime rates, the blue beacons that are part of Project Lighthouse, signifying help is available when it is needed.  This small partnership between city police and private industry provides another layer of comfort for residents and visitors and takes another bite out of negative perceptions.

Hard Work Pays Off

With just a little added effort and creative thinking, both Main Street communities and big cities are able to maintain their positive images and even change perceptions. A carefully planned Main Street program will help shift public perceptions and practices to support and sustain the revitalization process. Detroit is doing just that. The city is carefully putting strategic programs and projects in place to revitalize the city and prove the critics wrong. Just because negative perceptions about our communities exist, doesn’t mean we have to live with them. That’s why constant revaluation is so very important. Main Street is about thinking outside of the box, choosing to see the potential in our downtowns, and coming up with creative ways to get the job done.