I recently had the opportunity to visit my birthplace, Minneapolis, MN with an economic development team from Orange County. This column is the first of a series sharing best practices which can be applied locally. Enjoy.
One of our speakers, Leah Wing, executive director of a downtown agency, spoke on how to create vibrant downtowns. Minneapolis is in a large metropolitan area of 3.5 million people, while the city itself has about 340,000 residents. It is also the location where the George Floyd death transpired just a few years ago. The city has been working overtime to make changes and grow from the tragedy.
Ms. Wing’s opening quotable statement was, downtowns should be a place where we “live, work, play & explore”. I love the added term “explore”. I subscribe to creating spaces and tools to guide residents, guests, and children to successfully explore their communities. I authored a Driving Tour Series which is available at my office and Canon Coffee in downtown Apopka.
I recently took my two granddaughters to Apopka City Hall. I showed them the 9/11 Memorial, John Land Statue, 123-year-old sycamore tree, and the fern sculpture. Had the bakery, Gingibread been open at night, I would have bought them a cookie and explained that the town’s doctor, Dr. McBride, ran his general practice in that same historic building. The girls absolutely loved my tour. I made Apopka City Hall an experience for two little girls.
The Minneapolis speaker emphasized the importance of making the daytime economy exciting. And let me tell you, Minneapolis was exciting. We found the Mary Tyler Moore statue in front of the old Dayton’s Department Store, shopped in a four-story urban Target, ate at unique restaurants, and experienced all the economic development around the stadiums. Their leaders were purposeful about attracting Minnesotans downtown through sporting events.
To expand their daytime traffic, the city and business community added attractive landscaping and flower box arrangements, approved a plethora of beautiful architectural designed buildings, and offered a multitude of engaging street activities. It was a bustling, happy place. Empty office buildings had been converted into hotels and apartments, which had the additional benefit in lowering inflation due to consistency in rental rates.
Leah Wing talked about collecting data to measure growth in sentiment and behavioral patterns. It doesn’t take rocket science to see all the negativity surrounding the subject of downtown Apopka on social media or the lack of conversation about our developing downtown Lockhart. According to Leah, we should measure these responses as a baseline, develop a downtown master plan and begin a concerted, intentional, deliberate effort to improve these two eco-systems. I must say the new Apopka group and People of Lockhart with their 150th Anniversary in November are beginning this critical work.
Leah also explained that the “lens of the region” depends upon the reputation of the city. Now I know I have done considerable work cleaning up corridors and neighborhoods. It is time to begin working on our downtowns. Downtowns matter to the reputation of the entire area. Therefore, we must work on our corridors and downtowns, whether we live there or not.
Exploring means experiencing. Minneapolis has uniformed, welcoming ambassadors. I ran into one of them while walking downtown. This individual offered us directions and kindness. Their leaders also believe a city must be clean, green, and safe. The Mayor of Minneapolis, Jacob Frey, was extremely proud of all his revitalized green spaces. He bragged about taking his three-year old to a different park every day. We saw a plethora of pedestrians and cyclists. Minneapolis was certainly not just a highway to the “burbs”.
All I could think about was finishing our West Orange Trail gaps and inviting Minnesotans down for a ride during their cold winter. Our trails are potentially a great asset, yet we have no artwork, little wayfinding signage, and lots of homeless individuals inhabiting bridges and vacant parcels. We must work on all these aspects of our trail system which could then attract northern tourists, functioning as an economic engine for new local businesses. I hope you hear that I’m on a mission to make this a reality.
I hope you continue to read more about my trip to Minneapolis, and application for improving Orange County in this series. To be continued…