Expert delivers his verdict on what downtown needs

Expert delivers his verdict on what downtown needs

During a post-presentation workshop at the Blackstone Valley Visitor Center last Friday, Roger Brooks emphasizes the important aspects of turning a downtown into a destination area. (Breeze photo by Ethan Shorey)

PAWTUCKET – Two of the city’s greatest needs in its downtown area, says nationally known tourism and downtown expert Roger Brooks, are for more activities people want to do and a cohesive signage system to help people get around.

And by activities, says Brooks, he doesn’t mean events.

While cities across the country continue to focus on major projects, such as big events, streetscape redesigns or slick branding campaigns, they’re missing one of the greatest drivers of new downtown life: Simple activities. And when the activity comes, Brooks said, vacant commercial and residential spaces fill up.

A capacity crowd in the theater at the Blackstone Valley Visitor Center on Main Street last Friday, May 10, heard Brooks share the latest best practices in promoting downtown development. He said doing things the way they were once done is not an option.

Director of Commerce Jeanne Boyle, who attended the event, said the Blackstone Valley was very fortunate to have someone with Brooks’ experience run a workshop on community development. She thanked the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council and Bob Billington for putting the Sustainable Tourism Planning and Development workshop together.

“It was clear that the revitalization of our downtown is a priority to not only the city, but to the numerous groups and business owners who were all in attendance,” Boyle said.

While there were many takeaways from the informational session, a key one that was evident was that there are many people working for the success of the downtown, and it’s important to work together to ensure that everyone is on the same page, Boyle said.

“We must have a holistic approach to the downtown that entices our residents and others from outside the city to want to visit year-round,” she said. “The reality is that downtown development, tourism, and the general economic health of Pawtucket are all intertwined. We will focus on the importance of having a well-lit and walkable downtown as we learned that the majority of downtown business occurs in the evening hours. The upgrades to the downtown garage will serve as a stepping stone in this direction (those upgrades are due to be completed by next week).”

She added, “We are going to look into the many recommendations that the consultant provided us with. We will further dissect what we learned on Friday and expect to use Roger Brooks’ various resources going forward as we continue our efforts to revitalize our downtown.”
Visitors, Brooks told the crowd, look for specific activities before searching locations. Statistics show 95 percent of people are searching for the activity rather than the location.

He urged stakeholders to promote the city’s top three of four assets, restaurants, retail shops, activities and attractions, and not to let local politics kill the effort.
Navigation systems are not a substitute for the physical “way-finding” systems that clearly define where everything is in the downtown, said Brooks, noting his own difficulty finding landmarks in Pawtucket’s downtown area.

One option, said Brooks, is a year-round public market in the downtown that can serve as a hub for various events and activities.

Like signage, activities don’t typically require a significant investment, said Brooks. Among the simple activities seeing success at drawing people in other urban areas of the country are foosball, Ping-Pong, imagination playgrounds ($4,975 for an entire set), chess, bocce, yoga and Zumba, he said.

Activities, he said, should be centered in the middle of a downtown’s shopping district.

The downtown should be the city’s “living room,” he said. If a downtown can get 1,000 people to come to hang out each day, he said, there will be no vacancies left and people from Providence will be coming to Pawtucket.

“The heart and soul of any community, other than its people, is its downtown,” said Brooks. “Why would you let your nucleus rot?”

For the complete presentation by Brooks, visit www.sustainabletourismlab.com .