EcDev Journal

Developing a Downtown Marketing Strategy

Posted on Thursday August 09, 2012

Nothing reveals a community’s determination to be economically competitive more than a thriving Main Street. Achieving success downtown is a strong signal that the entire region has found its economic direction. People are working together. That’s one of the core requirements for a successful downtown marketing strategy.

A healthy downtown is a symbol of community pride. Research shows that a vibrant Main Street boosts economic health and quality of life for miles around. If the Main Street environment attracts people, this feeds retail businesses which in turn attract more people, creating a positive spiral of growth and economic sustainability.

Moreover, Main Street renewal can be viewed as a signpost to the future, especially in the creative economy. Downtown is important to young people as a gathering place. A recent study by the Brookings Institution found that young people in their 20s and 30s are tending to move to metropolitan areas that they regard as “cool” and where they can feel connected. This puts a premium on marketing the attractiveness of your community’s economic core.

Marketing is just one aspect. Infrastructure, beautification, public spaces, public art, shops and cafés all contribute to a successful downtown. But once these things are in place marketing is critical in order to create messaging, advertising, branding and promotion, increasing the foot traffic that is so necessary.

Multi-Year Strategy

Downtown marketing strategies must have staying power, and the people behind them must have patience and plenty of people skills. It can take years to develop good will among various interest groups so they work toward a common goal. Building and maintaining community consensus is absolutely essential and should be the first phase of any downtown marketing strategy.

Funding requires constant attention over long periods. A variety of funding sources must be cultivated, and at least some funding commitments should be in place before any announcements of initiatives are made. Communities that announce grand plans in the hope that financial supporters will eagerly step forward will find that their credibility soon vaporizes.

Another reason for emphasizing a long-term strategy is that Main Street expansion or renewal requires plenty of time for research.

Do you know exactly what your community offers? Each downtown has its own unique architecture, cultural traditions, heritage, human talents and other assets to build on. Your strategy must be based on documented knowledge such as:

  • What commercial space your downtown has, or could have;
  • The needs and ideas of business owners;
  • What residents think of the downtown and its functions;
  • Where your community draws shoppers from and what their buying habits are.

A marketing strategy based on this knowledge should be accompanied by an implementation plan that extends over several years. The plan should encompass initiatives for each target audience and should include not only a guide to implementing the new marketing strategy and recommendations, but also to measuring and evaluating their success.

Stakeholder Engagement

Strengthening your Main Street is a relationship-based business. The economic developer depends on a wide variety of stakeholders to contribute time, money and expertise. You need support from business and property owners, bankers, citizens, public officials, chambers of commerce and other community organizations.

One at a time, meeting by meeting, all these groups need to be consulted for their input into the marketing process. Otherwise it is very difficult to create consensus on goals, vision, and tactics. Consider the use of focus groups to ensure a thorough consultation process.

A useful tactic is to attract the attention of potential stakeholders at the start of the project. Organize a special event or festival in the commercial district to highlight how important the downtown is to the community economically, historically, and culturally. Then work with others in the community to schedule a public meeting. Invite every group that should have an interest in your downtown’s future to meet and discuss the needs and opportunities for change in the community.

Vision Development

Main Street revitalization or enhancement is sometimes viewed merely as a program of physical improvements. Marketing programs have frequently focused on how nice the downtown looks now that parking has been improved, sidewalks have been paved and trees, benches and new lighting have been added.

Such improvements by themselves have only minor effect. What is required is a true vision for the downtown, based on economic themes. What kinds of businesses, services and attractions are best for your downtown, based on your community’s characteristics and the customer groups you want to draw?

The marketing strategy must draw on the visionary capabilities of all stakeholders to ensure that the strategy is built on long-term goals, that it addresses major issues and concerns, and that community assets, resources and talent are maximized through an organization that effectively implements a sustainable Main Street development plan.


The core of any downtown marketing program is the communications function. Communications should be about engaging people, building quality of place and fostering leadership. Successful telling of the downtown story will be seen when local leaders and entrepreneurs are connected, engaged and wanting to make a difference.

Effective stories need to convey value, be easy to tell, be relevant and illustrate results. They can be told in many ways, through the use of innovative brand logos, investment profiles, brochures, tradeshow booths, newsletters, advertising and more.

The primary communications medium though, should be the web.
Through website resources, social media and e-mail, your department can most effectively manage regular, effective and valuable communications about the Main Street project. This will simultaneously help to foster relations with both the local business community and your target customer audiences.

Long-Term Success Story

In recent years a number of North American communities have successfully implemented and marketed Main Street revitalization or enhancement plans. Chattanooga, Tennessee, Louisville, Kentucky, Raleigh, North Carolina and Brampton, Ontario, come to mind. But for a one-stop look at how the principles discussed here have been applied with great success, consider Dubuque, Iowa.

A city of 58,000 on the Mississippi River, Dubuque has received a number of awards and recognition for its redevelopment during the past decade. In 2010 the Greater Dubuque Development Corporation was recognized by the Mid-American Economic Development Council for its programs in business retention and expansion and workforce development. Also that year Dubuque was named the third most livable community in the world at the International Awards for Livable Communities.

Recently the city received high praise in discussions on the LinkedIn Economic Development Leadership Group by Eric Canada and Larry Burkhardt for combining vision, leadership, collaboration, focus on goals and public/private partnerships in renewing its old industrial center.

From a struggling, depressed city in the mid-1980s, Dubuque has transformed itself into the leading job producer in its region with revitalized downtown and waterfront areas. It attracts 1.5 million tourists annually.

The city and region undertook a series of public visioning and strategic planning processes over a series of years to envision a better future and figure out how to get there. In 2004, the City Council approved the Downtown Dubuque Master Plan born from this process, with six elements of downtown revitalization.

You can see Dubuque’s strategic approach by examining a description of one if its projects, the Millwork Warehouse District Restoration, at . The project is visionary, not merely a makeover, because it is based on the principals of environmental stewardship, smart energy use, economic prosperity and social/cultural vibrancy. This is the foundation for a marketing story that is easy and exciting to tell.

Citizen involvement, cohesive principles and vision-based communications, as exemplified by Dubuque, demonstrate how downtown/Mainstreet economic development projects can indeed be signposts for a community’s future. This series of articles will examine some ways in which economic developers can effectively lead such important initiatives.


Anya Codack
Yfactor Inc.
phone: 416-977-9724 x 509