Rebecca Cross: Teamwork helping to make EC a destination ‘place’

The Daily Advance

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At the North Carolina Main Street Conference in Salisbury this year, we learned about a concept of “Placemaking.” Placemaking is a concerted effort to improve and revitalize a particular area to make a community a better place.

To build a high quality “place” or community (such as Downtown Elizabeth City) we need to relate to the local context and its distinctive characteristics. We need to know what we’re good at, and to create memorable experiences and a sense of place. This can involve both the physical design and creating an emotional attachment to a place. If we have the right recipe, we can attract the right kind of economic development.

In “Top 20 Placemaking Mistakes to Avoid” by Randy Rodgers, he refers to three necessary steps of Placemaking: craft a meaningful vision; develop regulations (the rules and tools) to achieve that vision; and implement purposefully. And remember that great people make great places too.

However, Rodgers’ article also shared placemaking mistakes to be avoided (compiled by Nathan Norris, CEO of the Downtown Development Authority of Lafayette, La.). Here are a few:

Mistake 1. Refusing to do the hard work that’s required to create a meaningful vision; “You can’t have a meaningful vision if all you do is say, ‘Here’s our plan, public, what do you think?’” Norris said. “It doesn’t matter if you have 75 different meetings if all you’re giving them is one choice.”

Mistake 2. Refusing to identify a model to emulate. “It’s incredibly arrogant to think you can’t learn from others.”

Mistake 3. Thinking that you don’t have enough money for good placemaking. Don’t judge development on the quantity of budget rather than on quality or ROI (return on infrastructure investment).

Mistake 4. Failing to document and teach the vision to citizens and youth.

“We’re big believers in attracting the creative class,” Chad Emerson, director of development for the city of Montgomery, Ala., said of the upwardly mobile 18- to 35-year-old set. “It’s really important to get them engaged. They’re more prone to be interested in becoming early adopters in the urban scene.”

Mistake 5. Trying to fix everything at one time instead of focusing on the “low-hanging fruit” (things that are most ready and easy to be fixed).

Mistake 6. Engaging too many of your resources into planning as opposed to implementation.

“Municipalities mistake placemaking for place planning and place design,” Emerson said. “The planning and design are critical parts, but placemaking is a creative process that doesn’t stop when the plan gets adopted by the city council. … If we stop there, we’re only halfway done. … We need to grow the implementation funding pot, and we need more people who are focused on that.”

Mistake 7. Failing to leverage art as an economic development tool.

“We, as cities, have failed to unlock the economic potential of public space and public art in downtown centers,” Emerson said. “We’ve absolutely failed to realize that this is not just something for the parks and recreation department.”

Emerson said economic development departments should care about creating quality downtown parks and cultural centers because those amenities “actually increase surrounding real estate values. And, when you increase the value of the surroundings, it increases your sales tax revenue, it increases your property tax receipts, and it increases the number of tourists that come there, which increases your lodging taxes…. It increases not just the cultural value, but the economic value of your downtown,” he said.

As you have probably already read in previous Daily Advance publications, AoA and ECDI in partnership with ArtEC are currently working on two downtown public art projects. And, with our distinctive “Elizabeth City H.A.S. It!” campaign for downtown History, Art and Science, our historic buildings, and our beautiful waterfront, we have a great start to placemaking. In addition, ECDI is working with the Mayor’s 20/20 Vision Downtown Action Task Force and our great downtown businesses and supporters. Together we can make Downtown Elizabeth City a high quality destination “Place”!

Rebecca Cross is executive director of Elizabeth City Downtown, Inc.