It’s not about one dude: my interview on downtown revitalization for Nevada Public Radio

Last week, when  I was in Las Vegas to mentor at the South By Southwest Venture to Venture (SXSWv2v) conference, I was invited to speak on Nevada Public Radio’s news show, State of Nevada, about community revitalization and recent business closings in Downtown Las Vegas. I’ve been studying the Downtown Project and Las Vegas pretty closely over the past couple of years, and as I’ve written about here and elsewhere, I think they represent a new and potentially beneficial approach to the age-old questions of how to revitalize an older city commercial district.

But the Downtown Project has gotten some rather unflattering press, I think in part because of early lack of transparency and a little naivete, but mostly because the people who have been writing about them appear to have very little understanding of what it takes to revitalize a city –  what I referred to in another piece as “the long hard slog of community revitalization

As you’ll see and hear in the introduction to the show, the “look it’s all failing and it’s that guy’s fault” angle was pretty pronounced — I was actually a little surprised at how sharply the claws came out from the start (I know, if it bleeds it leads — I get that. But this is public radio!)

So by the time the host brought me into the conversation, I had concluded that it was time to insist on a more reasonable narrative — one that wasn’t about One Guy and a few short term issues, and more about the long view, placing their city in a national context, and building a realistic perspective on the whole range of people who are investing in this city.

I also made some observations about a few of the inherent advantages that I think Las Vegas has in the fight for revitalization – and these come in part from a culure of optimism, of willingness to try something new, that I don’t always see in cities that are trying to revitalize themselves. I haven’t heard as much “that won’t work – we tried it before” as in many places – in part because they haven’t developed that legacy of failed attempts yet. Some of those things I said might look a little suck-up-y in print, but I meant them.

One thing that I am starting to think about, though, is this: I’m familiar with one-industry towns — and interestingly, one of the other speakers seemed to think that this was unique to Las Vegas, and didn’t seem to recall that Pittsburgh and Detroit and many of the other cities we had been discussing had been one-industry towns for a very long time.  The challenge that urban observers often note in places like that is that the big industry presence seems to have a negative impact on entrepreneurial culture – people who might be inclined to be entrepreneurial don’t know anyone else who owns a business, they’re not encouraged to see that as an option, and they haven’t learned from their surroundings the basics of how to make that work.

Like I said, Las Vegas doesn’t seem to have as much of the fatalism that you see in the eastern cities that I have grown up with.  But I’m wondering if there might be some lack of entrepreneurial how-to context – not only among potential business owners, but among observers who seem to think that a big pile of money should solve everything, and solve it overnight.  And who view six businesses closing (without looking at the number of openings, which has been huge) as a sign of the End Times.

three businesses

Three brand new businesses in rehabbed buildings. None of which were mentioned in the “six businesses have closed!!” setup. My photo, July 20.

You can listen to the interview here, either streaming or download.  About the first 20 minutes are the other three panelists (a business reporter, a real estate guy and a councilman) having an inside ball conversation. If you deal with reporters, or councilmen, or real estate guys in your town, this part will probably be same tune, different words for you.  Three new businesses in Downtown Las Vegas. As in, brand new. None of which were mentioned in the broadcast. My photo.

But I think you’ll find the way the conversation changed after I came in interesting. I don’t know why this happened, but after I reframed the issues and kind of forced a broadening of the perspective, the other speakers largely dropped the accusations and began to talk about the deeper important issues – even though the periodic reminders of the topic had what seemed by now to be a jarringly snarky tone.

And I think that’s a powerful lesson  for all of us: sometimes a point-by-point rebuttal of the naysayers isn’t what’s really needed.  What’s needed, both for a specific conversation and for the community, is to be able to pull back and see the big picture of community revitalization.  If we could do that effectively, we could probably help ourselves-and our communities – a great deal.

I hope you enjoy the listen.  If you need help changing the conversation in your community, please do let me know.

Building a Small Business Ecosystem in Montana

Two weeks ago I had the great opportunity to do an expanded version of my Small Business/Entrepreneurship ecosystem talk for the Montana Economic Development Association and for a selection of business owners and community leaders from Great Falls, Montana and surrounding communities.  With both groups, I had a chance to not only do the talk, but to also do some hands-on training (using methods oddly similar to those in Crowdfunding Wisdom: a guide to doing public meetings that actually make your community better…).

When I do sessions like this, the organization usually picks up some local press, but the quality and insight of the reporting that we received from the Great Falls Tribune was head and shoulders above what I’ve come to expect.   Not only did they do this very nice article that included this pretty good summary quote:

It may be tempting to put up some banners and flower pots, design a nifty logo and put window displays in vacant buildings, hoping economic development follows, but Rucker said that is rarely successful.

Instead, local governments can take leadership positions when community members are unable to move the needle on big challenges. Other times, government can be more of a feeder instead of a leader.

The difference is offering support instead of doing things local nonprofits and business owners can do themselves, she said.

barbershop

Marvin Newkirt at The Barbers Chop Shop (Photo: TRIBUNE PHOTO/AMANDA DETERMAN)

But they also accompanied it with this more in-depth article that weaves together some of my comments fron an interview with stories of local small businesses, quotes from other local leadership and statistics from the Small Business Administration.  I especially liked how the reporter, Briana Wipf, pulled this insight out of our interview:

While Rucker was in Great Falls, she heard about existing projects by residents who wanted to see revitalization in the community.

“It clearly demonstrates that this is a place that has a social fabric,” she said.

But even communities that don’t already have that tradition can build a network of individuals and business owners who want to build a town ripe for entrepreneurship.

That won’t happen overnight, but grass-roots movements are better at recognizing “what the best use we can be looks like,” she said.

 

Meet and Mentor with EngagingCities Managing Editor (um, that’s me) at SXSWi

I posted this at EngagingCities yesterday.  Right now I have slots available in Austin, so if you’re going, come visit me!

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Are you or someone you know trying to start a civic technology business?  A social enterprise?  Interested in exploring how you might be able to leverage tech to move the needle on big issues? Or just a technology/policy wonk?

Also, are you or they going to South By Southwest Interactive (SXSWi)?

If you said yes, join EngagingCities’ Managing Editor Della Rucker for a Mentor Session on Saturday, March 13.  These sessions are informal one-on-one discussions designed to give you a valuable connection and some quick insight on a business or idea you’re working on – no matter what stage you’re at.

Mentor sessions do require RSVPs. and you have to be attending SXSWi.  If you are, you can sign up for Della’s mentoring session here.

If you’re not attending the conference but you will be in town and want to chat, just tag her on Twitter –  @dellarucker.

I’ve done lots of mentoring, but never a SXSW event before.  I’m hoping to meet many of our readers and get to spend some thinking time with you!

From the Good Ideas File: expanding the model at Better Block Boro

A couple of weeks ago I had a return engagement in Middlesboro, Kentucky for Better Block Boro Part 2.  As I wrote about in this entry, the first Better Block Boro was held last October, and since I had never witnessed a tactical urbanism intervention in person, it was fascinating to me. This time I returned with my dear friend Bill Lutz, and we spent the day observing and having great conversations about what makes communities thrive or fail — and we had lots of object lessons to talk about.

Unlike the first BBB, which pulled in dozens of volunteers from colleges throughout the region, this one was intentionally focused on engaging local residents.  And local residents turned out.  Some were familiar faces from the last go-round, but many more were new to me, at least.

Like most Better Blocks, this one focused on one downtown city blockface, but it included a mix of physical improvements (like the first one) and what I might characterize as economic experiments, including a Maker’s Market and a demonstration of using local foods in cooking (paddlefish, anyone?  It’s actually quite good…).

You can get an overview of the event from the photo album below, and I’ll give you an (occasionally bumpy) walk-though via video below that.

Thanks again to Downtown Middlesboro for the kind invitation!

https://plus.google.com/101334076474117781335/posts/BFCrYwEuzTP

Spring/Summer speaking gigs forming up

As we trudge through the Midwestern snow and slush toward spring (Dear God, let it be so!) , speaking gigs for the spring and summer are starting to firm up.  Some of these are still a little fuzzy, so I’ll update as I know more.

If you’re near one of these locations and you’d be interested in a hosting me for a presentation or a training, let me know and I’ll waive the travel expenses.

  • April 28, I will be moderating a panel called “Open Data, Apps and Planning” at the American Planning Association national conference in Atlanta, GA.  This session includes four amazing panelists, including the CEO of LocalData and Textizen, the director of the Decision Lab at PlaceMatters, and the Director of OpenPlans.  If you want to find out what the bleeding edge of technology and public engagement in planning looks like, this will be the place for you.  I’m doing this under my hat of Managing Editor of EngagingCities, and I am as eager as anyone to hear what these guys have to say.
  • May 10, I will be back in Middlesboro, Kentucky for Better Block Part Deux, exploring how a small city can use a comprehensive, resilience-focused approach to community development to build a strong local economy — in a place where a strong economy has long been elusive.  I had a visit with Middlesboro last fall (you can learn a little about that here and here), and I’m looking forward to seeing more good stuff take hold here.

Managing a contentious public meeting requires a sophisticated set of tools to keep potential conflicts under control and to make sure that everyone gets a fair chance to speak up. It also requires knowing when to use those tools and how to do it in a way that makes all participants feel that their involvement matters. This session will explore various group management techniques used by successful facilitators to foster fair participation, lessen the likelihood of confrontational or counter-productive behavior, defuse conflict, and more. Participants will gain experience in using specific tactics through role-playing scenarios with fellow peers and colleagues.

This will be the third time I have done this session — which gets the participants out of their chairs and taking on roles like their favorite local crab and the dude who just wants to hear himself talk.  And gives them ways to manage that in conventional public meetings, and ways to restructure public meetings so that you don’t need to do that!  I’m looking forward to this — it’s not like Main Street people are shrinking violets anyways, so this should be something to see!

Ignite has become a fixture at IEDC’s recent conferences, but never has it been tried like this. In two separate Ignite-style panels, attendees will witness a succession of five minute, rapid-fire, get-to-the-point presentations, with time built in for speakers to answers questions on stage after they’re all done.

Ignite Presentation Sessions: The Power of Ideas: A brave new economic development idea. A twist in how people consider their roles within the profession. From new ways of thinking about impact to new functions for economic developers within their communities, these presentations are about dreaming big.

No idea what I’ve gotten myself into here, but it should be interesting!

  • July 23, I’ll be giving a webinar for Lorman on strategies that local governments can use to support small businesses.  That one hasn’t been formally put on the schedule yet, but I’ll let you know when it is.
  • August 21, I’ll be giving a keynote for the Michigan Economic Developer’s Association Annual Meeting on Sea Changes, partnerships and streamlining.  That one also hasn’t been formally announced yet, but I will let you know as soon as it is.

There’s  several others floating around, so if you’re thinking about a speaker for your summer or fall events, please let me know soon.  Thanks!

More from Better Block Boro

As I’ve mentioned in the last couple of posts here, I had a great time at Better Block Boro last week.  You can watch a video overview of what was going on at http://youtu.be/FlMMpWoPoI4, and you can see interviews with Mike Lydon of The Street Plans Collaborative here and some of the Better Block Boro volunteers here .   I’ve also posted some thoughts about how tactical urbanism ideas might apply to the Local Economy Revolution here.

And here’s a few photos that sum up the day:

Isaac Kremer gives Mike Lyons and I a tour of downtown.

Isaac Kremer gives Mike Lyons and I a tour of downtown.

Isaac called these floor tiles from a long-demolished building "Kentucky Urbanism," but then we all had a long talk about what a cool art project you might do on them.
Isaac called these floor tiles from a long-demolished building “Kentucky Urbanism,” but then we all had a long talk about what a cool art project you might do on them.

Some of the volunteers at Better Block Ground Zero.
Some of the volunteers at Better Block Ground Zero.

Some of the volunteers got the thrilling job of scraping dirt and weeds off the empty lot and curb.  Amazing what a difference it made.

Some of the volunteers got the thrilling job of scraping dirt and weeds off the empty lot and curb. Amazing what a difference it made.

Did you think to spray paint this onto the broken sidewalk?  I sure didn't.

Did you think to spray paint this onto the broken sidewalk? I sure didn’t.

A guerilla historic marker.  The laminated page explains the history of the building.

A guerilla historic marker. The laminated page explains the history of the building.

Every time I turned around, Mike Lydon was on the top of a ladder again.  Having just met him that morning, I was pretty sure he was either fearless or nuts.  He said that they found the letters in the abandoned theater the previous day and he had personally washed them off.

Every time I turned around, Mike Lydon was on the top of a ladder again. Having just met him that morning, I was pretty sure he was either fearless or nuts. He said that they found the letters in the abandoned theater the previous day and he had personally washed them off.

This was an abandoned store front the day before I got there.  By Saturday morning, it was a lovely multi-activty space for kids.  This blew me away.

This was an abandoned store front the day before I got there. By Saturday morning, it was a lovely multi-activty space for kids. This blew me away.

University of Kentucky landscape architecture students designed a trash can/recycling system using - what else - pallets.  The Better Block material of choice, apparently.
University of Kentucky landscape architecture students designed a trash can/recycling system using – what else – pallets. The Better Block material of choice, apparently.

And the finished product.  Trash on one side, recyclables on the other.

And the finished product. Trash on one side, recyclables on the other.

Mayor Bill Kelley takes a rest in one of the pallet chairs - outside of the pop-up restaurant he was running that day.

Mayor Bill Kelley takes a rest in one of the pallet chairs – outside of the pop-up restaurant he was running that day.

This is the interior of the theater in the previous pictures.  Two days before this, it was full of dirt and debris and had not been used for 20 years.  That evening, they screened It's a Wonderful Life for the community.

This is the interior of the theater in the previous pictures. Two days before this, it was full of dirt and debris and had not been used for 20 years. That evening, they screened It’s a Wonderful Life for the community.

So…why are you doing this? Note #2 from Better Block Boro

Another little peach for you from my weekend at Better Block Boro in Middlesborough, Kentucky.  You ever known a med student?  They’re stressed all the time!  But here’s three from the medical school at Lincoln Memorial University  (and there were a lot more) pulling on long underwear and work gloves to help clean up an overgrown vacant lot and turn it into a glimmer of what it could be.

Listen to what they say about why they’re out here on a cold Saturday morning (and yes, the lady behind the camera assures you, it was Coooold!).  Each of them has a slightly different reason.  And note that none of them grew up in Middlesborough, or even live there.

Remember these guys the next time you want to say “no one cares about this place.”  LMU med students from other states came out to help this little town.  Chances are there’s someone out there who wants to make your place better.  They just might not be where you would first think to look.