There's an old saying in the restaurant and bar trade about building business. "Nothing draws a crowd like a crowd." I confess that our industry often attempts to create a "buzz" by doing some sort of promotional ploy aimed at luring you in our doors with an agenda of getting into your wallet once you've arrived.
Truth is all marketing aims to do the same. Almost all business is concerned about critical mass. I've even heard a businessman joke that he lost money on every sale and it was only volume that saved him.
Really? How does that work?
While volume doesn't quite function that way, most businessmen understand the need to cover fixed costs, as well as the need to increase demand to the level that creates profit.
Critical mass is needed in all business. This need reveals itself in the desire for one business to seek out another to park itself beside. It's no accident that car dealers, retailers, fast food restaurants, and even doctors, lawyers, accountants, and government offices place themselves alongside each other. Hence, another old saying, "Business begets business."
Critical mass is key to any downtown revitalization. Christopher Leinberger, a leading urban planner with the Brookings Institution, has written that reaching critical mass means that the redevelopment process is unstoppable.
And, at that point, an upward spiral begins to create a "buzz," increases the number of people on the streets, raises land and property values, and makes the community feel safer. More activity attracts more people which increase rents and property values creating more business opportunity which means more activity and people on the street, and so on.
Leinberger states, "Simply put, in a viable downtown, more is better."
On the other hand, Leinberger tells us that critical mass can kill suburban development. Anybody willing to tell us they enjoy the "Grand Central Mall" traffic? I'm guessing no.
That reminds me of the saying from the legendary Yogi Barra. When asked why he no longer went to a famous St. Louis restaurant, he replied, "Nobody goes there anymore, it's too crowded".
Leinberger also points to a very important, and I think telling, reality. Recent research shows that while suburban developers have better financial returns in the short-term, downtown developers have substantially better returns in the mid- to long-term.
That truth, my friends, may well tell us the story of our larger community. National research shows that, despite the reluctance of many developers and retailers, in the past 15 years, downtowns have demonstrated a better understanding of how to bring themselves back.
But the financial return takes longer. It's not "low-hanging fruit."
Leinberger says it is no longer a mystery how to start a downtown revitalization process. It is more complex than suburban development, and takes longer. It also requires community cooperation, as well as private-public collaboration. And both of these are difficult to achieve.
Yet many communities have managed to revitalize their downtowns in recent years, and we have valuable insight as a result. If they can do it, Parkersburg can too.
Come see me. I'll be in the lounge.
Cecil Childress is General Manager of the Blennerhassett Hotel and Chairman of Downtown PKB.