Singing the town’s praises

As popularity of downtowns grow, Sundance begins economic development strategy study

By Sarah Pridgeon

(Sarah Pridgeon photo) National Main Street program Vice President of Revitalization Programs’ Matt Wagner addresses an audience of business owners and interested residents at city hall on Tuesday afternoon.
(Sarah Pridgeon photo) National Main Street program Vice President of Revitalization Programs’ Matt Wagner addresses an audience of business owners and interested residents at city hall on Tuesday afternoon.

Downtown areas are experiencing a surge in popularity, according to Matt Wagner of the National Main Street program. As malls and superstores slowly dwindle, he told a room of local business owners and stakeholders last Tuesday, many of us are once again seeking a more personal experience in a small, downtown business.

Wagner visited Sundance along with Linda Klink from the Wyoming Main Street program on a fact-finding mission for a “transformation strategy development technical study”, an award recently granted to the city by the organization. The goal, he said, is to transform downtown areas into something, “unique and distinct within a competitive environment”.

The secret to achieving this, he continued, is a strategic and cohesive approach, figuring out the strengths of the current downtown area and what makes the city unique and capitalizing on those things.

However, he continued, “we’re the methodology”, while it’s the people who make it happen. A successful revitalization of a downtown area requires buy-in, care and support from the community.

Wagner shared statistics that indicate downtown areas are once again surging in popularity for a number of reasons and uses. A recent emerging trends study, for example, showed a huge shift in 2017 as to where people are investing in property, with Main Street retail growing and regional malls lingering at the bottom.

No new malls have been built in America in 15 years, Wagner said. Their day may well be over. Superstores are also hemorrhaging, he said, thanks to a “profound shift” in how we are now shopping.

While most of us are aware of the shift to online shopping, he continued, it’s perhaps more surprising that many customers are choosing small, local destinations on main streets.

“It’s not about the products any more – it’s about the experience,” he said. The kind of social interaction, personal service, opportunity to watch creators at work and unique products available on main streets are something that we need to “harness and bottle”, he said.

Sundance also offers a quality of life advantage that new businesses can take advantage of thanks to technology, he said, as long as there are support systems in place such as cell service and fiber internet.

“As long as you can be connected, you can be anywhere,” he said.

There has also been a noticeable migration back to living in the downtown area, something that was common in the 1970s when store owners lived above their businesses, he said. That’s not necessarily possible in Sundance as the town has few second floors above its stores, Wagner commented, but there are plenty of in-fill sites should that be deemed a course to pursue.

Wagner also noted that downtown areas had many more uses than retail before business and industrial parks became common. Small manufacturing is returning now that tools such as sewing machines and food mixers are lower in price, he said, and a “craft economy”, including such things as craft beers, is beginning to explode as customers look for craft-centric, unique products to show off to their friends.

An advantage Sundance already has in the pursuit of economic development is its trail systems, Wagner continued. He suggested that connecting them to the downtown would be advantageous so that visitors aiming to walk the trails will park, unload and then return later rather than to a trailhead outside town.

Wagner cautioned that one crisis coming soon to downtown areas will be the retirement of the baby boomer generation. As the people who own and operate many of the institutional businesses in downtown areas retire, they could be lost forever unless those owners develop a plan of succession.

Wagner then turned his attention to the role of the technical study; his visit last week, he said, gave him time to get to know the community, what is already in place and what advantages may exist.

“There is not one silver bullet here,” he said of the push for economic development, listing design, organization, promotion and economic vitality as the four pillars of the Main Street approach.

“You’ve got to push a bunch of levers.”

A downtown is like a product, he said: you must ask what makes it distinct from everyone else’s product and focus on that unique feature. This should be done through a comprehensive approach in a strategic way.

He also noted that any strategy created is not intended to be permanent, but will change as the downtown continues to evolve and should be reevaluated regularly. Dynamics alter, he said, when changes occur such as the completion of Old Stoney.

Wagner will be returning on June to present thoughts on what makes Sundance unique, what its niche might be and possible uses for the downtown area. The next steps will be like a puzzle, he said, utilizing such things as focus groups, market data, surveys and “gut instinct”.