On Sunday, Oct. 14, Ketchum’s Town Square was packed and partying. After the annual Trailing of the Sheep Festival, locals and tourists alike flocked from Main Street to the plaza for food trucks and the heavy dose of rock ’n’ roll.
“Get a good band and a nice day, and it all comes together,” Ketchum Mayor Neil Bradshaw said later. Sure, if you have a place where it can.
Not too long ago, the square was a parking lot.
Back then, Bradshaw was president of the board of the Ketchum Community Development Corp., a nonprofit created in 2006 to work as a private development arm alongside the Ketchum City Council and Urban Renewal Agency. The organization, which annually accepts public money from the city budget, drummed up $400,000 in four weeks to build the block, he remembers. There was some pushback—and fair concerns about parking—but seeing the place full to the gills that Sunday, it’s hard to imagine downtown Ketchum without it.
“It’s been really important to creating a sense of place,” Bradshaw said. “We may have lost some parking spots, but that’s what we gained.”
Beyond a geographic designation—beyond a buzzword for businesses and developers—that’s what a downtown, done right, provides. A successful center can define the town around it—root it, anchor it, give it, as Bradshaw says, “a sense of place.”
Soft as it sounds, that identity can be a powerful economic driver—first as a magnet for people, and then for businesses that depend on them.
Roger Brooks, co-founder and president of the consulting Destination Development Association, calls it “place-making,” and it underpins his program for downtown revitalization. (See sidebar for Brooks’ 20 ingredients for an outstanding downtown.)
“Think back a couple of generations: When people moved to the suburbs, retail went with them in the form of suburban malls, and downtowns began a generation of declining vibrancy and increasing vacancies,” Brooks wrote in a post on the association’s website. “A third of all suburban malls are now on the “endangered list” as people are gravitating back to downtowns—not for the downtown shopping of yesteryear, but as the community’s central gathering place.”
For an economy paced by tourism, there’s another layer. According to Destination Development, 80 percent of non-lodging tourism spending takes place in a city’s downtown core, making it essential to get it right.
But first, you have to get locals on board.
“If you don’t hang out in your own downtown, neither will your guests,” said Sun Valley Economic Outreach Director David Patrie, paraphrasing another of Brooks’ axioms.
One way to encourage that: Take a page out of the Ketchum playbook with a “programmed plaza.” Brooks recommends having a place with 250 days of activities a year, tying the marketing message to experiences rather than sticks and bricks.
With Forest Service Park and the town square, Ketchum stages events in two municipal spaces. Soon, The Community Library will add another. Its privately funded expansion on the east end of Fourth Street will feature a public promenade.
At the other end of the valley, there’s Bellevue. The town has also seen its share of downtown growth, using a very hands-off approach. A big boost came from the new Silver Creek Hotel, which opened last year, said Bellevue Community Development Director Diane Shay. Along with the adjacent Atkinsons’ Market, the pair form an anchor on the north side of Main Street—checking another of Brooks’ boxes.
Anchor tenants are places or things people will travel to visit; Patrie cites Atkinsons’ Ketchum, Hailey and Bellevue locations as textbook examples. Other businesses tend to pop up around them.
“Historically, it’s been a little bit of a challenge for businesses to come down here and open, because, in the past, this was such a sleepy little town,” Shay said about Bellevue. “Right now, these businesses are bouncing off each other. They’re complementing each other. I’m excited to see what the future brings.”
The biggest thing she sees: redevelopment of old lots into new business. The city enforces zoning to combat sprawl, and not much else.
“We’re seeing that happen automatically, and I’m thrilled about that,” Shay said.
But, Bellevue is still sleepy on a Saturday, as Shay is quick to admit. And Patrie said the city has a lot of room for improvement: Sun Valley Economic Development gave Bellevue’s downtown a D grade, based on Destination Development’s criteria. (See the “Grading downtowns” sidebar.)
To check more boxes, cities need to take a more active role, according to Sun Valley Economic Development Executive Director Harry Griffith. At some point, raising Bellevue’s grade will require a tighter focus, and a fleshed-out plan, and often that starts at City Hall.
For Griffith, the best way forward is through public-private partnerships.
“One side’s not going to carry the day,” he said. “We need to find creative solutions.”
That’s a hard pitch. If stakeholders, many of them in direct competition, can’t see what you’re driving at, it becomes nearly impossible. They need a vision—they need, in Bradshaw’s parlance, a sense of place.
“The only way for the tide to rise is for us to collaborate and work together,” he said. “We can’t tell people how to run their businesses, but we can educate them.
“Fostering a sense of place and community gets people moving in the same direction. Even competing businesses will help each other if they understand what they’re doing it for.”
Bradshaw has a copy of the Brooks 20 ingredients tacked to the wall in his office, which is two flights of stairs and about 200 feet from the square. In his term as mayor, the City Council has added cabanas to it; next, he hopes to add outlets—anything, he said, to draw more people to the town’s hub.
Success starts with filling those cabanas and tables and benches. But for Bradshaw, it quickly extends into something deeper.
“It’s much broader than usage,” he said. “It’s about creating empathy, and understanding. People are not going to connect if they email each other every day. We want to make it easy for people to connect face to face, in a center for community connection.
“It’s an important reminder to me that people basically want to be part of something bigger. Give us a chance, and a place, and we’ll rally for it.”