Lessons Learned from the Annual International Downtown Association

Themed “AuthentiCITY” the International Downtown Association (IDA) recently held its 63rd annual Conference and Trade Show in Winnipeg. The conference focused on examining the role of place management organizations in shaping prosperous downtown and commercial districts. After taking a few weeks to collect my thoughts, here are some of the key topics I continue to think about.

The uncertain future of retail: The popular media narrative of e-commerce growth signalling the end of physical “bricks and mortar” retail is easy to believe. However, sessions and speakers at the conference highlighted the nuances missing in that narrative – trends like the strong growth of e-retail but still limited overall share of spending, the difficulty of measuring the influence of digital technologies on retail spending, and the hidden costs of online shopping (e.g. returns, fulfillment). My takeaway? e-Commerce will continue to disrupt retail, but it’s too early to abandon “bricks and mortar” models.

A new type of homogeneity: Consultant Michael J Berne asked if our pursuit of creating diverse “hyper-local” downtown areas has led us to a new type of homogeneity, where success is associated with a mix of craft beer bars, “inexplicable” general stores, and highly-specific record stores with weird hours. New shops and services in our downtowns are certainly something to be happy with, but Michael highlighted some real challenges with this new image of success we should all be aware of, like the potential to undermine social cohesion, prevention of access to all but certain entrepreneurs, and loss of businesses that embody the true authenticity of the area.

Start with the worst ideas: When the Iowa City Downtown District brainstormed themes for their Shopping Genius marketing campaign, they started with the worst possible ideas – highlighting the similarities between their businesses or promoting their issues with parking. By getting those ideas out of the way and on the table, they were able to come up with a short list of the characteristics of their district and its businesses that they felt were the key to highlight in the campaign.

Using culture, whether positive or negative: Executives of Leeds, Lincoln, and Norwich downtown organizations provided excellent examples of using cultural assets and events to change perceptions of their communities. Highlighting things like the oldest Christmas Market in the UK, the “City of Stories” campaign, or “A City Less Grey” art project, each organization is using cultural initiatives to re-shape how their communities are perceived both internally and externally. What about negative perceptions of the community? Norwich BID provided an example of embracing their perceived cultural shortcomings – embodied by fictional character Alan Partridge – to showcase the City and build community pride.

The conference also showcased interesting examples of public engagement, such as the shipping container being used to establish a vision for the vacant Market Lands in Winnipeg, and on incubating small place-defining businesses through projects like Selden Market in Norfolk, VA, and Downtown Winnipeg BIZ’s pop-up shop in the Forks Market.

Though many of the presenters and examples were drawn from larger Canadian and US urban areas, trends and ideas showcased at the conference still influence economic development in Ontario’s rural downtowns and commercial areas. Where possible, the Regional Economic Development Branch is always looking for new trends like these to shape our own programming.  Contact your local Agriculture and Rural Economic Development Advisor for details on how our Downtown Revitalization program could help your community.

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