BY CHRISTINA HALEY O'NEAL, Wilmington Biz
Chicago might be a larger city than Wilmington, but both can use some of the same tactics to bring people downtown and, ultimately, investment into the city.
That was a message shared by Michael Edwards, president and CEO of Chicago Loop Alliance, the keynote speaker Thursday at the Downtown Economic Series luncheon, a fundraiser for Wilmington Downtown Inc.
During his talk at the Wilmington Convention Center, Edwards focused on tactical urbanism, which refers to creative changes, often low-cost, to the environment to improve the city and its public spaces. As head of the Chicago Loop Alliance, Edwards works to promote the Loop, the city’s downtown central business district, as a destination for business, retail, tourism and more. The organization under Edwards' helm has a $3 million annual budget and employs seven people.
Edwards' organization is very much like WDI, through the scale is different, he said. Many of the day-to-day programs and things that he and Ed Wolverton, president and CEO of WDI, deal with are similar, Edwards added.
The Chicago Loop Alliance has almost 300 members and advocates for the property owners within the Loop. It also services an 18-block business improvement district, similar to the Wilmington Municipal Services District (MSD) established downtown last year.
Wilmington's MSD is a service provided by WDI through a contract with the city to provide safety, cleanliness and economic development programs for the district.
"Tactical urbanism is way more effective if the place is clean, the place is safe ... [and] comfortable," Edwards said.
Many of the programs under Chicago's business improvement district, through tactical urbanism, help make the city more competitive, Edwards said.
The Chicago Loop Alliance has also worked to activate city streets, with public bike access, flags and public spaces around crosswalks. These are included in what Edwards described as placemaking features along with other measures such as providing outdoor seating space for visitors and encouraging businesses to do so as well.
Another example of activating the streets is utilizing neglected spaces around the city -- such as alleyways -- to bring together art and music along with beer and wine for five events during the summer months. The budget for this is about $150,000, he said.
Edwards highlighted several ways Wilmington does this already, with the downtown farmers market and riverfront concerts.
"Tactical urbanism is a very affordable way to engage new people in your business district ... There's a ton of other people out there who would love to play in downtown Wilmington; they need a way to do that. Tactical urbanism is a great way to bring people closer," Edwards said.
"It's all about people. It's all about placemaking. It's all about experiencing the city in a totally different way, and it's also good for business," Edwards added.
Based on a survey that was completed in 2017, Edwards said, access to talent and skills was the top priority for Chicago business owners. The districts, both in Chicago and in Wilmington, need to be a part of that scenario, he said.
"It's really important to realize the business districts are actually competing for investment. It used to be -- before mobile technology and millennials -- that downtown was competing against surrounding suburbs. Today that's different. We are now competing for other business districts, other cities and other regions. Labor is mobile. Labor can go where it's fun, it's interesting -- where they can get a job," Edwards said.
And the downtown organizations can help in that by both improving the quality of the environment and creating experiences that are memorable that people visiting the area, he said.
Wolverton highlighted some of WDI's efforts during the event, including what happened downtown last year.
Wolverton said there were 46 new businesses downtown, 304 new jobs and $67 million of new investment. And growth in assessed values downtown jumped by 16 percent in 2017, he said.
In the past six years, downtown values have grown by 32 percent, outgrowing both the city and the county in terms of growth in its tax base, Wolverton said.
"Downtown is massively outperforming the city and the county tax base, and our growth is, in fact, uplifting the entire local economy," Wolverton said.
Wolverton listed a number of projects downtown -- redevelopment, infill projects and new construction -- that have taken place to help with that investment downtown, including the Bailey Theater property, which was sold to a new owner, he said.
"The owner is looking at a redevelopment there, keeping the facade in some way and constructing a building behind there, which will be important," Wolverton said of the project. "It gives you a sense of where we are, and where we are headed and what we can do."
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