NIAGARA FALLS – Two national experts on urban planning and development recently came to Main Street to think of ways to revitalize the faded commercial strip.
Believe it or not, they liked what they saw.
“It was probably the best grass-roots economic-development effort I’ve ever seen,” said economic-development expert Chuck D’Aprix. “It operated outside of the political mainstream, and it was assisted by a group of local activists who understand the need to create economic development from the ground up.”
More than 100 city residents – ranging from recent college graduates to senior citizens – came to the Rapids Theatre on March 9 to hear the advice of D’Aprix and Mike Lydon, who are known nationally for helping to turn around struggling urban areas such as Niagara Falls.
They were invited to the city by Tom Lowe, a Niagara Falls resident who works for Niagara University, and Matt Green, a city native who studies urban planning at the University at Buffalo.
“It seems like there’s progress being made, but also some very difficult barriers that are in place and logjamming more of the progress,” Lydon said. “But there’s things that can be done in the short term to try to help that effort.
In the short term, Lydon said, those efforts include “activating” streets and pedestrian spaces that already exist downtown – hallmarks of his “tactical urbanism” movement that has caught on in other cities.
Third Street, in particular, could benefit from temporary activity such as summer festivals and staged “open streets” events that restrict vehicular traffic and create a critical mass of pedestrians for local businesses such as Wine on Third.
“You might be able to leverage that into sort of a temporary or weekend event on the block to try to imagine what that might look like longer term,” he said.
Lydon also said the city should use the upcoming Main Street Music and Art Festival – which is moving to Old Falls Street this summer – not just for entertainment, but for brainstorming from residents who have their own ideas about what is needed downtown.
“Use it as an opportunity when you have a captive audience of those people who can, yes, enjoy the art, but also have other things going on so they can interact with things going on in the community,” he said.
He added that a major take-away from the symposium is the reality that Niagara Falls residents want to be directly involved in the planning process and that many of them have felt excluded for far too long.
And the historic divide between city residents and those who have left the city and moved to the northern suburbs needs to be bridged, he said.
“This is one region, you know, and we need more cooperation to cross those boundaries,” Lydon said.
Numerous challenges exist to developing the core of Main Street’s historic buildings into marketable destinations, form property owners to neighborhood blight to a lack of residents.
But Lydon said short-term solutions can be found.
For instance, in Miami, a cluster of windowless warehouses were transformed by street art and graffiti into a regional arts cluster with restaurants, galleries and festivals (wynwoodmiami.com).
The Niagara Falls activists are hoping that such short-term efforts can translate into the type of longer-term successes that D’Aprix is advocating.
Those results, D’Aprix said, will not come from the traditional “smokestack-chasing” strategy that Niagara Falls has long followed.
“That approach just doesn’t work anymore. The key is entrepreneurship; it has to be community-based entrepreneurship to drive economic development in Niagara Falls,” D’Aprix said. “This means establishing a presence on Main Street for entrepreneurs, and letting creative people of all ages know that downtown Niagara Falls is now the center of creativity and entrepreneurship. That’s what’s going to drive revitalization, not one megaproject.”
But how does the revitalization come about, especially in a commercial strip that has fallen into such disrepair?
D’Aprix says the solution is letting small startups know they are welcome in downtown Niagara Falls. The city can show this, he said, by establishing an entrepreneurship and small-business development center with volunteers from local colleges and universities, lawyers and accountants to help businesses get off the ground.
A small-business startup fund, similar to what the city does with its NFC Development Corp., should then follow with grants and loans for the right businesses the city wants to attract.
The city also should become part of the national Main Street program, which is run through the National Trust for Historic Preservation, he said. More than 1,500 communities nationwide are on the register, which qualifies them for grants and other services.
But selling the city as a business-friendly, creative, innovative place is the key, D’Aprix said. “The No. 1 pitch is, ‘We will help you every step of the way. We will be your support system. We will create an entrepreneurial ecosystem so you don’t have to do this alone,’ ” he said. “The key is to make the entrepreneur feel welcome. Too few cities do that.”
D’Aprix said Niagara Falls reminds him of Lowell, Mass., where he started his Main Street career 30 years ago, a “hardscrabble mill town where the public and private sectors came together to help drive business downtown,” and also of Brunswick, Ga., “an old downtown that was kind of down and out and came back.”
Those downtowns were revitalized by fostering a culture where entrepreneurship is “in the air,” D’Aprix said.
D’Aprix believes that despite all the challenges – and there are many – some of the same ingredients exist in Niagara Falls.
“I left the other day very high on Niagara Falls,” he said. “That’s due in great part to the grass-roots effort and the fact that the mayor is as visionary as he is. And I have no political agenda.”