It has been a good run. Cities of all shapes and sizes across America over the last nine years have experienced some kind of positive growth overall. A lot of that growth for many mid-size to smaller communities has been focused on bringing their once forgotten downtown areas back to life.
The thousands of women and men who work in economic development and city government have poured effort, hours, brain power, and public money into growing and improving their communities. For many of those towns, their efforts are just now starting to pay dividends, and the idea that their positive momentum could come to a screeching halt is hard to stomach. But it will happen, it always does.
Nobody can predict exactly when the tide will turn, but everyone knows we are overdue. What the catalyst will be for the next recession, how severe it will be, and how long it will last are also unknowable and uncontrollable, but preparing for it is possible. Planning for the inevitable slowdown is the best way to make sure your town maintains the hard-fought growth already won, and that should be the goal.
This article will lay out a framework for a conversation that city leaders and others involved in the business of growing communities can have as a first step in that planning process.
1. TAKE INVENTORY
This task can be fairly simple or very time consuming depending on the size of a city, but having a firm grasp on what businesses are open and how those businesses are doing is the first step.
2. RANK INVENTORY
What businesses are vital to your city economically, geographically and psychologically? Every business in a city matters, but there are some that are far too important to lose.
3. GET INVOLVED WITH THOSE BUSINESSES NOW
Get to know important business owners on a personal level. Get to know their landlord. Try to get them to share their expenses, sales trends, and recent net operating income. If or when these businesses start struggling, you will need this information on hand to help them come up with a way to survive the storm.
4. CREATE ANCHORS WITHIN THE CITY
Planning major public projects, improvements, and buildings at key areas in a city can help anchor that section of town as something more permanent. Museums, parks, and theaters ensure that people frequent those sections of town even if the growth around it has stalled out during a recession. These placeholders will make it possible for growth to reignite around them when the economy begins to recover.
5. SHORE UP CURRENT CONSTRUCTION
Are there construction projects going on in your town that appear to be stalled out? Talk frequently with developers, contractors, and landlords to make sure these projects are moving forward. When the recession does hit there will be projects in many towns left unfinished. Stay on top of where things stand. Uncovering the issues in a project early enough and working with all parties involved to make sure that something is completed (even if it is not the original project) can keep this kind of development nightmare from happening.
These five items make for a good starting conversation and brainstorming session, and hopefully those sessions lead to actionable planning.
My two favorite quotes about planning for disasters are from two very different men. Both had a unique viewpoint on planning for an uncontrollable destructive force, be it war, hurricane, or recession. Mike Tyson was quoted to say "Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." If anyone knew about punching people in the mouth it was Mike Tyson. At the time, he was like a force of destruction. It was entertaining but disheartening to watch all these professional athletes destroyed by something and someone they had no power to control. Dwight D. Eisenhower said, "In preparing for battle, I always found plans were useless, but planning is indispensable." This from a man who knew the chaos of war on an intimate level.
There is no way to forecast when exactly the economy will take a downturn and in what unique way it will affect your community. In that sense, planning can seem like a waste of time, energy, and money, but being aware of the present state allows you to effectively prepare for the inevitable. The goal is to retain the growth that every city employee, planner, and economic development professional has worked so hard to accomplish. The goal is to come out the other side of a downturn with the majority of that hard-earned growth still open for business.
Cities trying to revitalize their downtown areas must sustain growth through several recession cycles before they hit a critical mass of new development. In the next article, I will detail the Main Street growth in my hometown of Greenville, SC over the last 30 years to illustrate how sometimes not losing any ground is just as important as growth.