I was invited to a mainstreet workshop. About 60 of us there was, in a village hall, huddled into an enormous circle on those warty, orange and beige, plastic school chairs, looking at a table. With a texta on it.
The exercise this time was anyone who had an idea to 'revolutionise' the mainstreet was to break the silence, skate across the freezing distances to the stranded table in the middle and squeakily press their idea onto a page. Then, slowly turning as if on a dais, speak it out loud to everyone whilst holding it up like a dead mouse. They then couriered it to the moderator who sticky-taped it to something nearby.
This happened about five times until it was called to a halt as a satisfactory enough contribution. And we all broke our gaze on the texta and with a big, slow blink we pointed our necks in a new direction, as invited, to genuflect on the conclusions.
There are always two conclusions that appear on these occasions:
1. We should all wear two dresses and spin around on the road with a twig in our hair.
2. Stab the landlords.
That's fine. We deserve these conclusions.
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Ideas that trickle trough the long, boring, unstable, cracked, weed-strewn and lonely pathways laid down by our traditional community consultation processes are eluctably sustainable.
Your decision making system, like every ecology, is fertile for certain decision making outcomes and hostile to others. It's just that we've created a system which is only good for the bitterest, boniest and gnarliest arguments to make it. All the sexy people are too busy running cafes. Somewhere else.
But that's OK. The system's not broken.
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Turning to the Lord Mayor beside me to carefully curate the converstaion to my own needs and services, I listened to their angst about the 'rainbow-flavour' of it all and thought, "Good, this is my chance to tell you how to actually deliver a vibrant mainstreet," and so delivered my consolatory sermon on local economic vitality.
And then this is what I said, or words to that effect.
1. "I agree, it's a dear shame that there is little substance between yearning the community has for a so-called 'vibrant mainstreet' and the conclusions of community consultations".
2. "It is normal business for governments to heavily fund community development departments".
3. "But the biggest and best community development areas are our mainstreets".
4. "Our mainstreets are largely funded by the private sector. The buildings are owned and maintained by non-government entities and the activities and places are provided by businesses at their cost".
5. "Obviously, high vacancy rates, bad mixes of businesses or the wrong businesses coming in all squeeze out community participation in a mainstreet and hinder community development".
6. "The least the community deserves, let alone the landlords and businesses who are funding the whole shooting match, is that some of the local government efforts are given over to a shopping centre role where there is wisdom, caretaking, governance and outcomes delivered for the place".
7. "It is imperative - it is essential - that local governments accept their role as the chief place manager in their streets and appoint committed, experienced individuals to be given equal credibility within local government organisations just like community development teams enjoy".
8. "The place manager's role is to drive community participation, creativity, innovation and energy, through better street management".
I then put my leg up on a warty orange chair and, pointing my nose to the heavens and amid a crescendo of strings, sang:
"Similarly, it's that community participation that will help preserve, maintain and grow a distinct retail offer - something every local government requires to out-compete other areas and shopping centres, minimise vacancies, and, of course and most importantly, satisfy locals, who want nothing more than a useful, distinct and sexy retail mainstreet: one they can call their own, one they can show off to their friends and visitors, and one they can be proud of".
But I don't think they heard me. I only saw their bum, as they were walking away. Alas.
* * *
Even if they don't think so, local governments are the shopping centre managers in our mainstreets. The 'market' will not 'sort itself out' on our mainstreets and 'stable the ship'.
Our mainstreets are shopping centre areas which must be curated, controlled and designed to drive our community development. There's plenty of 'play' in the system for the so-called free market to run amok in the meantime.
If you do not control your shopping centre, shitty businesses and vacancies can appear to a tipping point where your 'steady ship' is more Titanic, dragging down the expectations of your community along with your residential property values and everything else, like retail turnover, local employment, safety, security and your 'brand'.
Until there's awareness, backed up by proportionate funding, that a shopping centre focus delivers community development better than a $150,000 cairn at the beachfront, then we will have to sit through more community brainstorming sessions and bite each other's lips at the peel of each tie-dyed sticky-note.
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You don't want to be one of those guys who 'perhaps has some good ideas sometimes' but who cannot be left unattended: you're essential-interviewing for your insider-knowledge but are, ultimately, a crank. Like a tweed in Midsomer Murders.
That is why I have developed a Place Management System which satisfies all the local government necessities of:
- Baseline data
- Business communication and networking
- Enrolling the business community and landlords into the management of your mainstreets
- Sustainable systems of place making, place maintenance and place marketing
- Retail planning, urban design, traffic flow and controlling vacancies
Something community-run mainstreets have always done and will always do, if managed right. (And something shopping centres are doing right now.)
A Beautiful City has (I have) just delivered a $150,000 local government program to satisfy requirements in several departments' independent business plans.
To get started, contact this number for a coffee at your local (firstname.lastname@example.org 0418433280)
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