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Downtown Schenectady Master Plan — Appendix D: Commercial Revitalization Details

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[This information is from pp. 1-7 of Appendix D of the Downtown Schenectady Master Plan prepared by Hunter Interests, Inc. in 1999, and is reproduced with their permission. It is in the Schenectady Collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at Schdy R 711 DOWf.]

Retail revitalization is critical to the overall downtown Schenectady revitalization program. However, experience in other communities indicates that retail revitalization is often the most difficult element, and it often follows other successful actions such as office and entertainment development which generate retail customer traffic. The Hunter/Sasaki team has considerable experience in retail revitalization in other communities, and the downtown Schenectady master planning process included considerable analysis of conditions necessary to achieve retail revitalization and more efficient use of existing commercial space. It is anticipated that the retail revitalization program will pick up in the later stages of downtown plan implementation, after important day and evening people generators are in place, and after the downtown management organization grows and matures to the point where it can support a separate staff dedicated to matching new retail tenants with existing available space. To guide this effort, the Hunter/Sasaki team has included in this appendix an important program of sequential steps that the downtown management organization can follow when implementing the commercial revitalization strategy.

Major Steps Toward Downtown Commercial Revitalization

There are seven well tested actions that must be applied within the framework of the key components of the revitalization strategy for downtown Schenectady. They include redevelopment, business attraction, customer attraction, removing impediments, strengthening operator skills, cooperative management, and increasing the number of nearby customers.

Taken together, these steps represent the best combined strategies for making businesses and properties in divided ownership function as nearly as possible like shopping centers, theme parks, or any other managed environment that operates under a single management entity. These steps require strong partnerships between local governments and the affected property and business owners, neither of which can achieve significant economic success acting alone.

  1. Redevelopment

    Modern central business districts and urban centers require high volume anchors or catalyst developments to attract the number of shoppers and diners required to keep street-front retail shops and restaurants active and prosperous.

    When the private sector is unable to produce a bankable project without government intervention, redevelopment is one of the seven tools that require primarily public sector action. Use of statutory redevelopment powers may be required to assemble lots large enough for today's anchors and catalysts, as well as parking needs. Tax incentives, generally permitted along with the use of the redevelopment powers, may also be required. Soliciting and selecting capable and experienced redevelopers is another public sector or public/private partnership responsibility.

  2. Retail Business Attraction

    As the downtown revitalization program matures and markets strengthen, an active program to seek new retail tenants and match them with available space is necessary. With regard to re-tenanting the stores, there are three approaches com monly applied when strengthening urban areas:

    • Seeking to establish a mix of store types that fits the nearby trade area and visitor demand pattern.
    • Emphasizing clusters or niches of stores, thereby creating selected multiple destination centers serving a broader trade area.
    • Seeking entrepreneurs, irrespective of their specialty, who are strong merchants and who will attract trade from a wider area.

    The first is seldom attempted in small commercial areas because the number of stores is typically too small. Where space is limited, the local demand is usually obvious — food, pharmacy, eating establishments, dry cleaner — laundry, etc.-and private sector decisions will sort out local needs and opportunities without intervention.

    The several steps involved in business attraction are best performed with maximum leadership and participation by private sector groups; although, lacking this option, some cities handle this phase of economic development. Here are the most important steps.

    • There needs to be a continually updated computerized inventory to service inquiries about available commercial properties.
    • An attractive marketing kit is needed for business and real estate prospects, which includes demographic data, information about financial incentives, examples of recent success stories, plans, photos, contact people, etc.
    • The specifics of available commercial properties — photo, asking rent, specifications, special features, real estate agent — need to be published quarterly and made available to real estate agents and business prospects.
    • The real estate community should be an integral part of the business attraction program. Quarterly breakfasts for real estate agents with the City Council provide an opportunity to explain what improvements are being made and with what success. This is an important part of assuring that agents are both familiar with and convey positive attitudes in describing local urban real estate prospects.
    • A local committee of business operators is needed to participate in planned contacts with prospects and to serve as a welcoming committee (see Cooperative Management).
    • A special loan and grant fund to encourage new facades, signs and fix-up improvements, and/or an incentive bonus for realtors, developers, or others who produce tenants that meet locally defined priority needs.
  3. Customer Attraction

    A good customer attraction strategy can contribute significantly to the business attraction objectives. Business prospects like prosperous areas. The intention of the customer attraction program is to bring purchasing power from beyond the neighborhood, as well as to capture a higher share of local spending. This can be achieved by:

    • Introducing as many primary uses into downtown as possible, with a focus on unique entertainment and dining opportunities.
    • Creating temporary, additional spending opportunities on the site. These can include regularly scheduled flea markets, fanner's markets, arts and crafts shows, and similar vending opportunities.
    • Creating festive occasions with food, music, entertainment, activities for children, displays, etc.- activities that draw crowds. The appeal needs to extend beyond those who would ordinarily shop locally.
    • Planning cooperative advertising (see Cooperative Management).
  4. Removing Impediments

    A local business committee can usually agree quickly on the conditions that are detrimental to increasing sales and appealing to new businesses and then, working with the City, schedule improvements. These may include:

    • Location, amount, and price of parking. Every commercial area needs to examine its parking situation annually in cooperation with City economic development and parking officials.
    • Obstacles to securing permits for expansion and modification of commercial buildings. Business-friendly permit systems can be developed working with City management and code agencies.
    • Perception of unsafe conditions. Improving safety perceptions may involve better lighting, especially in parking areas, changes in police activities, or the employment of uniformed security personnel.
    • Excessive litter, trash. Sidewalk cleaning is an owner responsibility, but this is frequently handled cooperatively by a contract cleaning service working on an entire commercial district.
    • Neglected storefronts and signs and unattractive physical surroundings and lighting. Commercial areas often require physical plans and design standards.

    By removing impediments to development and relaxing overly restrictive zoning codes in key economic development target areas, the City will diminish the competitive disadvantage that urban development can have, compared with obstacles in suburban development. The effect will be a more balanced playing field for neighborhood and shopping center development, allowing market forces to determine the appropriate mix to meet demand. Over-burdensome urban development restrictions and building codes can negatively impact the supply and demand equation, resulting in significant leakage of resident spending to suburban power centers and community shopping centers.

  5. Strengthening Operators' Skills

    The retail and service operator is a critical element in a commercial area. Operators may need information on window treatment, merchandizing techniques, customer service, marketing, and other subjects that are often taught by community college faculties. An incubator program to assist area residents start their own business can be an important part of the overall revitalization strategy. Providing low-income population bases with the opportunity and tools to become part of the middle class is the greatest opportunity to strengthen the overall economy of both the neighborhood and the area.

  6. Cooperative Management

    There is little hope that a downtown revitalization program will achieve its potential unless there is an active group of business and property owners who meet regularly, plan and oversee activities, and share responsibilities. This policy level group needs to be supported by a competent and experienced staff who's only responsibility is managing the downtown improvement strategy and implementing the downtown revitalization plan. Together, policy- and staff-level personnel must constitute an effective downtown management entity that works all day, every day, on only improving the downtown area.

    To accomplish this necessary downtown management function, Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) have been formed in cities throughout the United States. At present more than 1,200 BIDs have been formed, most during the past 15 years. Even small districts with only a small supermarket and a few blocks of stores have formed BlDs, whereby the City authorizes a stakeholder group to manage services, and mandates a property assessment to assure that all properties contribute their fair share. Without the business talent and financial resources available through BIDs and the private sector commitment that this represents, city governments alone can do little in these areas that will produce actual economic improvement.

    Business Improvement Districts provide an institutional and financial base for meeting several needs of modern downtown areas.

    • Many BIDs organize cooperative advertising campaigns among businesses in a single location. Whether using direct mail, door delivery, or media purchase, the unit costs to participating businesses is substantially reduced and the quality of advertising increased through such joint ventures.
    • BIDs often consider how best to establish a fresh, recognizable identity for their location, reflecting the intended new direction for the business area. A logo is created, banners hung, parking directional signs installed, a slogan adopted, and other image-making techniques implemented.
    • The BID can provide maintenance, such as collecting rubbish, removing litter and graffiti, washing sidewalks, shoveling snow, cutting grass, trimming trees, and planting flowers in public places.
    • Security and hospitality needs can be met by hiring uniformed security and street guides or ambassadors, buying and installing electronic security equipment or special police equipment, and staffing sidewalk tourism kiosks.
    • The BID can produce festivals and events, and erect directional signage.
    • Creating programs to help the homeless, providing job training and youth services programs, as well as employing the disadvantaged for maintenance and other functions, are social service fimctions the BID can provide.
  7. Building the Nearby Customer Base

    Just as downtowns lost market share to suburban malls in the '70s and '80s, suburban retailers are now losing market share to travel-related expenditures, restaurants, day spas, and other entertaimnent outlets as the urge to "get away from it all" has increased. This increase is partly attributed to the shifting needs of the American family, as dual income families look for better and different ways to relax. There has been a shift in focus from just buying things for kids to getting them involved in activities that prepare them for the future. People are increasingly searching for enriching experiences, and many have begun to realize that suburban malls are very limited in what they have to offer, not only in terms of experience, but products as well. This gradual shift in big-picture trends fits well with downtown Schenectady's orientation towards the arts and entertainment, sports, and increasingly unique and diverse dining offerings.

    A second big-picture trend that Schenectady must capitalize on to bring customers into downtown is that Americans are increasingly turning to their past to be comfortable in the future. As the pace of life is continually accelerated by technological advances, the American consumer is increasingly turning to downtowns and urban destinations to provide an experience that connects them to their past. Younger generations appear to be backlashing against the "mall culture" and are reaching back to the pedestrian-oriented "Main Street" experience that their parents and grandparents enjoyed. Although this experience is increasingly dominated by food, beverage, and entertainment, it is complemented by hip, leading-edge retail establishments.

    Most older downtowns have more commercial space than is warranted by demand. Surplus commercial buildings often may be converted to residential uses as part of a city-led infill redevelopment strategy.

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