Downtown Areas Can Be A Model For Economic Development

Apr 17, 2017

File photo, looking north in Downtown Bloomington on Main St.
Credit Cristian Jaramillo / WGLT

The walkable downtown of the past isn't an anachronism, it's a future model for economic development.

Ed McMahon is a senior fellow with the Urban Land Institute, based in Washington D.C., and the keynote speaker at the 12 annual McLean County Regional Planning Commission's Community Information Forum on Tuesday. 

"Downtowns are important because they're the heart and soul of any community," said McMahon during an interview for Sound Ideas. "If you don't have a healthy downtown you simply don't have a healthy city or town." 

McMahon explained the "placemaking dividend." He said people stay longer, comeback more often, and spend more money in a place that attracts their affection. McMahon argues a community's unique identity adds social and economic value to a place.  In addition to internet sales, McMahon said affection is part of the problem with shopping malls: people don't feel affectionate about malls. 

"Who wants to go the strip center and hang out? People just go and buy what they want and leave," said McMahon. "But people will go to the downtowns of America and they will hang out and they will come back. That was our model of development in this country for about 300 years. We called it a 'town.'"  

The former Macy's at Eastland Mall in Bloomington.
Credit Cristian Jaramillo / WGLT

American car culture and auto-oriented development shifted people away from downtown and toward look-alike strip and shopping malls. Since 2006, 20% of shopping malls have closed, according to McMahon. He said Bloomington-Normal leaders should think about how people are spending. They're not spending money on dining out online, so restaurants or food related development may help malls. 

"When do you go to a department store? You might buy a piece of furniture once every five or ten years, you might buy new clothes every couple of months, but you eat 3  times a day,"  said McMahon.

McMahon is also an authority on active transportation and says communities should work toward creating walking and biking options to get to a downtown center. Studies show people who walk or bike to an area generally return more often and spend more time and money in the area. 

McMahon said development is seldom about the one big thing. Instead he said it's about a lot of little things. However he said a downtown hotel could work as the lodging industry is changing. 

"It's changing because the people who stay in hotels are changing. A survey done by the Marriott corporation for example found for young people in particular, the Millennial generation, that authenticity and interesting were more important than comfortable and predictable in the lodging world," said McMahon. He said every hotel chain is starting to build hotels in historic buildings. McMahon said Marriott is predicting 25 percent of their Courtyard hotels will be in historic buildings in downtowns.

Ed McMahon is the 2017 speaker for the MCRPC's Information Forum.
Credit Urban Land Institute

"I understand people don't like change but there's only 2 kinds of change in the world we live in today. There's planned change and there's unplanned change. And I can tell you that unplanned change will simply destroy every single thing you love about the place you live," said McMahon.  

He said he's optimistic about the future of cities and towns as leaders grapple with placemaking, active transportation, and economic development. He said the development paradigm is changing America and it's changing for the better. Cities and towns are coming back to life all over country. 

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