April 1999 // Volume 37 // Number 2 // Ideas at Work // 2IAW2

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Organizing for Central Business District Revitalization

Extension can play an important role in the development of a coordinated central business district revitalization effort. When viewed as an impartial observer without specific personal agendas, Extension is ideally suited to act as an organizing agent in the development of a coordinating committee structure. Communities of all types and sizes possess volunteers interested in revitalizing the central business district. Extension programming enabled these volunteers to realize their potentials and constraints, define their objectives, and develop strategies for action. The relationships that have been developed as a result of the project have been far-reaching and should be long-lasting. The methods that have been successfully employed in this program can be used by others in Extension facing similar tasks.

Gregory A. Davis
Extension Agent
Ohio State University Extension - Crawford County
Bucyrus, Ohio
Internet address: davis.1081@osu.edu

Addressing a Need

It is no secret that many depressed rural communities have begun to experience more prosperous times as a result of the most recent economic boom. This new growth, however, has not always favored central business district locations. As a result, many communities experiencing economic expansion have undertaken a variety of endeavors to stimulate revitalization of their central business districts.

In recent years, several communities in Crawford County have initiated various downtown renewal efforts, with different sources of financing and time frames for completion. Projects have ranged from the complete replacement of a downtown thoroughfare, involving sidewalks, traffic signals, streetlights, and public buildings, to the systematic improvement of the street scape building-by-building to the adoption and implementation of the Main Street model for renewal. These communities realized that a strong, thriving downtown not only strengthens the local economy, but provides the often elusive sense of community.

In most cases of successful downtown renewal, there is a core group of volunteers of business and building owners, professionals, lay people, city administrators, and others, that for a variety of reasons, organize and rally to promote the revitalization and redevelopment of a community's downtown.

Role of Extension

Over the years, Extension has been involved in these communities' renewal efforts to various degrees. The most common request of Extension is facilitating the solicitation of public input and assisting the development of group consensus.

This article will focus, however, on the ways in which Extension assisted in the formation of a grass-roots committee effort to identify, organize, and coordinate various complementing downtown renewal projects in a rural community experiencing significant development beyond the boundaries of the central business district.

What Was Accomplished and How

The thought of initiating a downtown renewal project was not new to many longtime residents and business owners in the community. Several past efforts to revitalize the central business district had, for reasons not entirely known, fallen just short of success. Regardless of this history, Extension was met by local volunteers with a high level of interest in downtown renewal and energy to support the effort.

Extension's initial involvement consisted of a few meetings with the local Chamber of Commerce to share thoughts on organizing for downtown renewal. The local chamber sponsored several meetings to gauge community interest in a large-scale, city coordinated revitalization effort. It became apparent that a meaningful downtown renewal program would have to originate at the grass-roots level. Since Extension had previously sponsored and conducted programs on travel and tourism, retail retention and expansion, consumer spending, and workforce development with the local chamber of commerce, involving volunteers in the coordination of a revitalization project through the chamber organization seemed a logical marriage. This was the beginning of another volunteer-organized downtown renewal initiative.

About a dozen enthusiastic volunteers gathered in the Chamber conference room for the first few meetings. These initial meetings of the volunteer committee were awkward and without group direction.

Aware of the group facilitation programs conducted by Extension on other occasions, the Chamber approached Extension to guide the committee through a mission/vision and strategic planning process. Extension facilitated this process over several weeks using Nominal Group Technique to demonstrate the commonalities shared by committee members.

An inventory of scheduled capital improvements and community assets (specifically central business district assets) was developed and used as a frame of reference in the development of the committee's plan of action for downtown renewal. Lines of communication were initiated between members of the volunteer committee and the various agencies, contractors, business owners and operators involved in or affected by the project's various efforts. The group soon gained legitimacy and became recognized for their concern for the sustainability of the city's downtown. Eventually, the committee was informed by city administrators of other future planned projects that warranted coordination in the renewal project. Additional subcommittees evolved in response to the group's expanded plan of action.

Further, the Chamber director was approached by a local company and persuaded to apply to the company-associated non-profit foundation for possible grant dollars that would be valuable in leveraging additional public and private investment in the renewal project. It was the preparation and deadline of this grant application that provided the cohesion required to keep the volunteers on track in their renewal efforts.

Extension worked with the Chamber in authoring the grant application, continued to coordinate weekly meeting's subcommittee reports, and used the grant application and its deadline to keep the volunteer group on task. The committee acquired and compiled information required for the grant application over a 4-month period. The application was submitted in October 1997. In January, the volunteer committee was awarded roughly 80% of the amount requested, which totaled about 27% of the estimated total cost of the downtown renewal project.

The volunteer-coordinated downtown renewal effort was able to leverage significant reinvestment in the community's central business district. Aside from the grant award, downtown property owners have invested nearly $150,000 on new sidewalks; the city has invested about $300,000 on new street curbing, subsurface wiring, and sub-surface street improvements in preparation for Ohio Department of Transportation resurfacing; and local banks have made available a $450,000 loan pool for building facade renovation. Several long-time central business district institutions are planning for significant reinvestment in the city's downtown in the near future.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Extension is uniquely positioned to help communities, organizations, and volunteer committees through the early and oftentimes most difficult stages of large scale community development projects. When viewed by those involved in the process as an impartial, objective resource, Extension can effectively provide valuable direction in mission/vision and action plan formulation. In the case of this community's renewal effort coordinated almost entirely by volunteers, Extension was effectively able to act as a convener of people, their ideas, and their energies.

Under the coordination of Extension, community volunteers were free to work on the various aspects of downtown renewal of specific interest to them, yet as a member of a coherent group focused on a larger picture. The weekly coordination of committee tasks enabled the group to address the various components of what would have otherwise been a very formidable task in a much more manageable fashion.