OpEd: Why DDAs should back business development

Annette Knowles

joined Farmington’s Downtown Development Authority (DDA) in 2005. Before coming to Farmington, she was director of the Allen Park DDA. Annette has been instrumental in completing impactful streetscapes, consolidating parking, conducting a trade area/market analysis, and property renovation.

Annette received her B.A. from the University of Michigan and earned certification as a Main Street Manager from the National Main Street Center in Washington, D.C. She is also certified as a Master Citizen Planner.

Why DDAs should get behind business development

I had two seemingly unrelated conversations recently. The first was with a business owner in my community who shared some gossip about another business owner who was dissatisfied with our organization’s effectiveness in bringing people into the downtown.The second was with one of our proactive volunteers who shared her plans to develop a speaking engagement about personal responsibility.

I now think it was karma that both of these conversations occurred because it has helped clarify to me what role our organization known as the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) has in business success.

When sharing with a new acquaintance what I do for a living, inevitably I am greeted with a perplexed look. The general public does not understand what a DDA is. I have learned to change up the language and simply say “we create and promote the place.”

As a local government entity, a DDA operates under a state act which proscribes its functions, most of which revolve around infrastructure (land and building) improvements and marketing initiatives. DDAs can analyze economic changes, develop plans and construct improvement projects. They can operate retail incubators and implement promotions, among other powers.

Now place-making is a trendy term, even though we’ve been creating places for generations and most successful cities already have those special attributes that encourage people to congregate and connect. Historic neighborhoods, libraries, churches, downtown pocket parks and plazas, outdoor seating and dining areas, sidewalk activities … all contribute to the quality of life that makes a community the place you want to be. And cities often augment the place with additional programming to bring animation and vitality to the streets. Art fairs, concerts, public art exhibits and farmers markets are intended to provide a destination for people to arrive, something to do in the places they love.

But, for all these efforts, our treasured businesses often reflect that they yield little benefit from the tactics I just described. I suspect that this is the case because downtowns are, at the core, centers of commerce and those tactics may not result in the desired effect – more business – that is, customers, who actually purchase a product or service.

This is the point at which my two seemingly unrelated conversations collide and I have to ask questions.

Is it fair of business owners to place an expectation on a local government entity to attract their customers and finger point when that expectation is not met? Are business owners conceding their personal power to succeed to an outside force rather than accepting personal responsibility? If yes, what then is our organization’s role in business success?

My contention is that by focusing most heavily on creating and promoting places, we have allowed a third critical role to languish. We have missed an opportunity to provide real economic benefit to our businesses by helping them to build skills and by sharing knowledge that will better position them to succeed in our marketplace.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I agree that place-making and marketing activities are important to the community. I am suggesting however that we thoughtfully and purposefully move development of our businesses higher up on the priority list so that they gain more confidence in their personal responsibility to attract (and retain) customers. By spending more time learning what the downtown experience is like for our businesses, we can then respond with programming that truly will meet their needs and build value for the organization. Let’s let our businesses know we are in their corner!

Providing access to updated market information, connecting to valuable resources and providing enrichment activities, among others, are mechanisms that our organizations may use to work with businesses to help them grow. (Surprisingly, references to some of these functions are not specifically expressed in the aforementioned state act, but they definitely are in practice.)

We need to start by affirming the message that we simply are ingredients in a complicated recipe, not the prepared dish that is placed upon the table. Moreover, we need to change our language again to emphasize a meaningful role in real economic development. Our downtowns will be better and more sustainable when we focus on cultivating healthy businesses first.