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Where all the lights are … brighter

February 25, 2016

downtownExciting changes are happening in downtowns of small and mid-size cities across the United States.

  • Large retailers, formerly the mainstay in these communities, are being replaced by smaller creative businesses tailored to specific population interests.
  • Increases in young adults and seniors interested in living in convenient and walkable downtowns are changing opportunities for new business types.
  • Buildings, vacated by large retailers, now house multiple small businesses that emphasize local interests and activities.

Ways to stimulate creative businesses were featured in a Feb. 25 workshop on Creative Enterprises and Downtown Prosperity, hosted by the NIU Center for Governmental Studies (CGS).

The workshop, held in the historic Egyptian Theatre in downtown DeKalb, featured speakers from Wisconsin and Illinois who talked about successful experiences in their communities and how they developed into an economic development strategy. The Egyptian is in the heart of the proposed DeKalb ACE (Arts, Culture and Entertainment) Corridor, which features more than 30 different sites celebrating arts, culture and entertainment.

Anne Katz, director of Arts Wisconsin, described ways in which the creative arts have been used to promote local economic development in many Wisconsin cities with events ranging from local food and crafts to visual arts.

ARTS Wisconsin: The Arts MatterWhat is important is that local economic developers understand how to work with these investors: The small businesses bring a new dimension to the community but also have different needs to prosper. Workshop discussions examined ways in which local officials can help these creative enterprises prosper.

The creative approaches can sometimes entail major building renovations undertaken by a collaboration of public, private and nonprofit entities as described by representatives from Six Corners Association and Arts Alive Chicago.

Moving from warehousing to mixed use arts space is an attractive development strategy in large cities but also can help smaller and mid-size cities revive the downtowns.

The creative economy extends well beyond the traditional visual and performing arts as shown by a panel of architects, designers, information technology businesses and entrepreneurs focusing on recreational activities. Each venture contributes to making the downtown area come alive.

“The definition of creative enterprises is broad, and many communities often overlook the many creative individuals prime for engaging in business ventures,” said Mim Evans, CGS research associate and co-organizer of the workshop.

The potential for small and mid-size cities to make their downtowns more alive and regain a central place in the community clearly exists. Many communities are seizing these opportunities by working with creative groups to start businesses focusing on the interests of today’s changing population. This trend is likely to positively change the roles of downtowns in the future.