springfield moIn recent weeks, we have provided the same programming recommendation to district management organizations in two very different parts of the world.  In both downtown Springfield, Missouri, an up and coming urban center, and Cherry Creek North, a tony retail district in Denver, we have suggested that “community-building” become a core service of their management organizations.  And while the same idea applies to two very different places, they are both affected by the same demographic and lifestyle trends that are reshaping urban districts.  Community-building is becoming an economic development building block – just as fundamental as traditional core services such as “clean and safe” or “marketing”.

Late last month, I had the pleasure of returning to Springfield for a strategic planning assignment after a ten year hiatus.  Located in heart of the Bible Belt in southwestern Missouri, we’ve had our doubts that investment would take off in its urban commercial districts.   But what a difference a decade makes.  Today’s downtown Springfield is thriving – it’s an edgy entertainment destination, fully connected to the nearby Missouri State University campus and experiencing a residential building boom fueled by an influx of millennials.  Most telling, the town’s remaining white elephant buildings – several long-time vacant department store and office buildings – are all in various stages of rehab planning and construction. 

In Springfield, community-building has become the new focus of the rejuvenated Downtown Springfield Association (DSA), a formerly sleepy membership organization.  The last time I met with DSA board leadership a decade ago, my recollection is that the group was dominated by very well intentioned pink haired ladies.  Today’s DSA leadership is completely different – young scrappy entrepreneurs whose mission is to create stronger social bonds through events that welcome new employees and foster innovation.  The DSA’s community-building activities are a central focus for refreshing Springfield’s downtown management structure.

In Cherry Creek North (CCN), the upscale Denver retail district is also rapidly changing.  A number of cranes are heralding new investment that will bring new retail, office and residential development.  We recently completed a stakeholder survey for the CCN BID in advance of a board planning retreat.  A key observation from the survey was the need to consider rebranding and repositioning the district, particularly polishing its appeal to millennial consumers and employees.  Community-building loomed large once again as a way to welcome and connect these new populations to the fabric of the district.

The market dynamics behind these transformative changes in both Springfield and Cherry Creek North were revealed by our recent Global Trends Report.  Urban districts are benefiting from many demographic and lifestyle changes, including a preference by both young skilled millennials and older Boomers to live and work in urban districts.  Both generations seek meaningful involvement in improving communities.  Changes in technology, particularly mobile technologies, are making social connections easier.  Urban districts and downtowns are becoming logical venues for facilitating these converging trends, offering the density and gathering places to foster more interaction.

Examples of effective “community-building” include frequent district-centered events, information sessions on projects, employee appreciation and “start-up week” promotions and impromptu gatherings that utilize a variety of social media platforms.  Best practice downtowns include Grand Rapids, where summertime features ongoing activation of the downtown’s central plaza through viral events that range from zombiefests to square dancing, and Boulder, where the BID has reoriented its entire economic development programing to foster a culture of innovation, including social events designed to connect individuals within the town’s burgeoning tech sector.

Community-building may become a more critical function in urban district communications strategies and a standard line item in organizational budgets.