Connecting with the Business Community

Business Improvement Districts Use Various Community Engagement Efforts to Shape the Economic Vitality of Downtowns

Community planning is a core function of the public sector. Cities and counties devote whole departments to determining the what-where-how of developing their built environments.

Planning that fails to engage the business community puts the vitality of the entire community at risk.

But the private sector can — and should — be an active partner. Planning that fails to engage the business community puts the vitality of the entire community at risk. 

“There is strong acknowledgment that small businesses are the unique driving force of most of our small communities and neighborhood commercial districts,” said Matt Wagner, chief program officer for Main Street America. “They bring so much character and identity to these local economies that not having them as part of [the process] would typically result in a misguided approach or project.”

What’s true for small-town main streets is just as true for big city downtowns. 

“Everything comes together in that urban center,” said David Downey, CEO of the International Downtown Association. “A strong downtown leads to a strong city which leads to a strong region. And everything is interconnected.”

Although some businesses are large enough to command their own seat at the table, most find strength in numbers through various types of associations and organizations that give them a collective voice in the planning process whether it involves zoning, utilities, transportation or any other public project or policy.

“Good things happen when we all come together and advocate with a consistent voice,” said Jeremy Martin, CEO and president of the Austin [Texas] Chamber of Commerce.

With a membership that ranges from sole proprietors to businesses with tens of thousands of employees, Martin said the chamber brings together “real estate developers, bankers, lawyers and mom-and-pop downtown retailers” to consider issues from a business-case perspective, supply professional expertise and advocate for positions taken by its board of directors based on member input.

“Austin is a very engaged civic community,” Martin said. “Whether it’s the land development code, a water treatment plant, the airport, convention center or I-35, each one of those represents one of the ways we are the voice.”

Lady Bird Lake, Austin, Texas

Grexsys / Moment / Getty Images

Working on behalf of its members, the chamber has the capacity to do the homework required to move the needle. “In order to be a credible voice, we have to be backed with good facts and good data to equip both the people who are advocating and the decisionmakers so that they are able to make good decisions without just relying on emotion or gut,” Martin said.

Austin’s explosive growth magnifies the chamber’s mission. “This is a place where people want to establish and grow their business,” Martin said. “Our ability to be an attractive place to do business very much depends on … making sure we are able to meet the needs of business whether it’s the physical infrastructure or the regulatory climate.” 

When it comes to engaging the business community, the chamber uses every tool at its disposal from e-mails to surveys to hosting events. “You name it, we’re doing it or have done it,” Martin said.

Based on surveys, the chamber knows its members care deeply about infrastructure improvements.

For example, based on surveys, the chamber knows its members care deeply about infrastructure improvements. So, when the city proposed establishing an infrastructure academy to help train the construction workforce needed to complete $25 billion in pending projects, the chamber urged members to send e-mails and testify before the city council in support of the academy.

Another pressing concern for the chamber is the city’s land-development code, which has made it difficult for housing supply to keep up with demand. This matters to the business community because hiring workers at a wage that allows them to live in Austin can drive up their costs. Although a total overhaul of the code has proven elusive, incremental progress is being made in terms of streamlined permitting and increased density in certain areas.

“If we’re not able to be an affordable community, it’s going to have a negative effect on businesses being able to succeed,” Martin said.

The Chicago Loop Alliance is the voice of the city’s downtown community, which consists not only of commercial businesses but numerous universities and arts and culture institutions such as museums and theaters.

People at a square in downtown Chicago

Photos are courtesy of the Chicago Loop Alliance

“On an ongoing basis we are hearing from all of these different sectors on what’s important to move The Loop forward,” said CEO and President Michael Edwards.

During the pandemic, the Alliance began quantifying the effects of COVID on downtown activity to help decisionmakers understand the need for assistance as the number of people working, visiting and shopping downtown plunged.

“We started releasing data,” Edwards said. “Pedestrian counts. Hotel occupancy. Parking occupancy. Number of people on public transit. We became a source. We gained a lot of credibility because we are now a consistent source of third-party information.”

As a conduit for collaboration, the Alliance helped reactivate downtown after the pandemic by spearheading a series of events called Sundays on State, in which a stretch of State Street is closed to traffic and turned into a block party featuring art, entertainment, food and drinks. More than 1 million people have attended these events since the program began in 2021.

Overhead shot of a street party in downtown Chicago

Photo courtesy of the Chicago Loop Alliance

The Alliance is also a strong supporter of the city’s Reimagine LaSalle Initiative, which is working to breathe new life into LaSalle Street. The once bustling street is plagued by a high-vacancy rate in older commercial buildings that in some cases are prime candidates to be converted into housing above with storefront retail below. The Alliance is prodding the city to adopt a streamlined permitting process and lobbying Congress to award historic preservation tax credits.

Downey, leader of the International Downtown Association, said that downtown business groups such as the Alliance are increasingly considering the residential sector as an essential partner — particularly given recent data confirming the wisdom of a decades-long push to create more downtown housing.

“Within the context of planning for the future, what we’re able to demonstrate, especially post pandemic, is that mixed-use, dense-urban centers … are thriving the most,” Downey said.

People standing in line at a beer garden in Chicago

Photos are courtesy of the Chicago Loop Alliance

Successful vibrant communities require engagement from every sector.

“We’re all seeking the same thing, which is successful vibrant communities,” Downey said. “It absolutely requires engagement from every sector. The more we can collaborate rather than polarize, the more successful we’re going to be.”

Downtown associations, business improvement districts and chambers of commerce are a nexus for communication among all the stakeholders in any planning process.

“These entities have the most direct one-on-one relationship with the property owners in their downtowns as well as the businesses that occupy those properties,” Downey said. “That’s where their greatest strength and benefit is to any downtown planning initiative. They have a direct line into the business community as it relates to place. They can serve as a strong conduit to get the right people participating.”

Involving the right people paves the way to address issues as complex as the need for more housing or as simple as ensuring street trees don’t obscure signage. 

“Real-world, practical things happen every day and if you don’t have that communication today, you’re going to have to redesign the whole project which costs time and energy and money,” said Betsy Brennan, CEO and president of the Downtown San Diego Partnership. “You can avoid all that just by backing up the project and working together from the start.”

Overhead shot of a street party in the historic downtown, San Diego

Photos are courtesy of Downtown San Diego Partnership

The Downtown San Diego Partnership strives to create the biggest tent possible when it comes to carrying out its mission.

“Historically, there are some that might not have felt they had a seat at the table in planning downtown,” Brennan said. “We want to be very intentional that people do have a seat at the table. There are other neighborhood groups, and we send representatives from our organization to those groups … and they are invited to our table. Even if we don’t agree, at least they are heard.”

Brennan advises people to get involved in whatever business association exists in their community. “They do not work without you and your voice,” she said.

Over the course of helping more than 2,000 small towns revitalize their commercial districts, Main Street America has found that many residents — not just business and property owners — are eager to volunteer to participate in the process.

“Just like having a great park system or school system, people feel a great affinity for the heart of their community — the small-business community — because it gives identity [and] says something about the overall health and vitality of your community,” said Main Street America leader Wagner.

The Main Street America blueprint encourages communities to establish permanent organizations overseen by local boards to pursue revitalization on an ongoing basis.

 “If you went to a mall or a big box store, there’s always management in place,” Wagner noted. “And if you think about your commercial area needing to be managed given how much change occurs in the economy … someone has to manage that change and assist small businesses. Main Streets take that role.” 

Main Street organizations also ensure a steady flow of information about plans and projects as they make their way from local government to the business community.

“The cities may not have the capacity to do that. It’s not like they have tons of public relations and communications staff,” Wagner said. “Things can change throughout a project. Having an intermediary in place ensures there are multiple touchpoints.”

With help from a technical assistance grant from the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® secured by the Catawba Valley Association of REALTORS®, the Main Street organization in Lenoir, N.C., made progress in its ongoing work to support its historic downtown business district. The grant funded a two-day site assessment led by planning and economic development consultant Hilary Greenberg, whose findings provide convincing fodder for change.

“People have a tendency to not want their city officials to tell them what to do,” said Glenda Wilson, a longtime Lenoir resident, Main Street activist and member of the Catawba Valley Association of REALTORS®. “Bringing in outside influences, it seemed like we got better responses. In the last six months, we have seen more interest in people wanting to look at starting a new business or maybe volunteering.” 

The site assessment was a whirlwind of public engagement as Greenberg and her team of two others toured the city and met separately with the city manager, elected officials, the chamber of commerce, lenders, retailers and restaurant and bar owners. 

They also held a workshop on building economic vitality through business recruitment, where participants learned strategies for how to boost retail sales, expand the tax base and reboot their commercial district through stronger partnerships between business owners, property owners, the city and other key downtown stakeholders.

One of the outcomes of the workshop was a tighter connection between the Main Street organization — dubbed Downtown Lenoir — and REALTORS®, who showed up in force at a breakfast forum that was part of the on-site assessment. “Main Street had wanted to connect with REALTORS®, and REALTORS® had wanted to connect, so this was a cool win-win,” Greenberg said.

Greenberg’s assessment underscored what Wilson and others already new. The number one issue facing downtown Lenoir is the number of neglected buildings that are vacant or underutilized. “The buildings need work and the property owners aren’t willing to do it,” Wilson said. “They just don’t see the advantage.”

What Comes Next? 

“What this analysis showed us, is the city is going to have to start doing some kind of ordinances…. so these property owners will have to put up or shut up, basically,” Wilson said. “They need to step forward and do some improvements or sell their properties. If they would sell them, we have people who would buy them.”

Even without an ordinance in place some property owners have seen the light. One building is being renovated to feature retail on the ground floor and dwelling units on the second and third floors, which were previously used for storage, Wilson said. An architect is working with another property owner to develop a plan for their building and apply for historic preservation tax credits. Even if the owner doesn’t follow through themselves, having a plan and tax credits teed up would make it more sellable.

Community engagement is crucial for a prosperous economy.

The business community has a desire to connect with stakeholders, decisionmakers, residents and property owners, alike, and community engagement is crucial when it comes to a prosperous economy and downtown. Engagement comes in all forms and business associations representing large and small cities, villages and towns help navigate the processes and facilitate con­versations that bring everyone together for the greater good of the community.


Placemaking Grant

Available to state and local REALTOR® Associations, this grant funds the creation of new, outdoor public spaces and destinations in a community.


Zoning laws affect land use, lot size, building heights, density, and more.

Smart Growth

The healthier a community, the better the environment for REALTORS®. Keeping a community attractive, livable and functioning well is a complex task.

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A free, semi-annual magazine published by NAR, On Common Ground presents a wide range of views on smart growth issues, with the goal of encouraging dialog among REALTORS®, elected officials, and other interested citizens.

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