Bryan Horwath offers an article on Aberdeen’s at least stagnant if not declining downtown. The discussion there is part brainstorming, part wheel-spinning. Downtown building owner Bart Walker says downtown has “hit a wall,” tells the city “to be more proactive,” alleges “redundancy’ between the Aberdeen Downtown Association and other groups, and says the downtown association isn’t doing “what it should be doing.” Walker says downtown needs “good leadership,” but then the paper apparently runs out of ink that would tell us exactly what magic recipe that leadership would follow to make downtown Aberdeen blossom.
Permit me to offer some suggestions:
- In Horwath’s report, Aberdeen Downtown Association exec Heidi Appel says a lot of people tell her downtown needs an Applebee’s or some other franchise restaurant. That lot of people need some re-education. People don’t come to downtown to eat at the same restaurant they can eat at out on soulless big-box fringe of every major town. They come downtown for unique experiences, like Aberdeen’s Flame and Red Rooster. Besides, franchises like Applebee’s won’t come downtown. Their blinders take them to the edge of town where they can build big parking lots. They have their place; it’s not downtown.
- Aberdeen has successfully maintained its Civic Arena and converted the old Central High School into the bustling Aberdeen Recreation and Cultural Center, along with some lovely green space. That busy spot is three blocks east of Main Street. Unfortunately, we have a line of city and federal buildings between the Civic Arena and ARCC and the commercial activity of Main Street. Nonetheless, downtown development should look for ways to connect the two areas, to help residents and visitors to conceptualize those two areas as one, and to get more synergy between events at the Arena and ARCC and opportunities for shopping and dining just a couple blocks away.
- Keep capitalizing on those government buildings and other offices and their workforces. A lot of professionals are working downtown. They have money to spend on coffee, lunch, and lots of little things they may need to pick on the way home from work. Stores around the federal building, the Wells Fargo complex, and the courthouse can look for ways to save those workers an extra trip, to invite them to walk a block on a lunch break errand instead of driving down to the mayhem of Sixth Avenue.
- Speaking of green space, Main Street could use some. We can probably sacrifice a building or two to open up the architecture, and create an outdoor third place.
- Forget venture capitalists. Downtown is not a place for investors who think the point of buying a property is to sell it for a huge profit in seven years. Downtown is a place for people who think place matters. Downtown is where you build something to last, something that will enhance the community in much more than profit and sales tax dollars. Downtown is where you create institutions that define your community at home and across the state. Downtown is for dreamers… and dreamers are useful, because they make things that aren’t just lines in someone’s ledger.
Notice that none of those ideas involve handouts from government. Downtown may well be worth continuing investment from the city—after all, downtown is primarily about retail, and the majority of the city budget comes from sales tax on retail activity. Build a unique downtown (like Fargo’s, about which I hear good things), and more people will make the trip to Aberdeen and spend more money. But if the city is going to offer tax incentives or other assistance to downtown developers, it should look closely at the above criteria and make sure public assistance goes to developers with the right downtown attitude.