For those responsible for assuring prospering town centers across Connecticut, the coronavirus-altered landscape requires not only revised messaging but a reinvigorated message. That’s because those receiving that communication will be seeing it through a vastly altered prism.
Perception – perhaps more than ever – will influence our actions. That is as true for downtowns in our communities as for other aspects of daily life. As never before, that presents new opportunities: to build greater awareness of assets that may have previously gone unrecognized or under-appreciated, to use existing downtown features in new ways, and to make connections among people and places that can refresh perception as we navigate the uncertain road ahead.
For town economic development officials and public office holders, for business owners and developers, community organizations and downtown advocates, the window of opportunity may not be open wide, but neither is it tightly closed.
We’ve spent months cooped up, yearning to get outside. And outside is no longer defined as journeys to exotic, far-away places. We are largely content with walking or cycling to our town center to connect with people and places – at a safe, masked distance – that we may not have had time for in the pre-COVID world, or that we never utilized to the fullest. Progress will likely see setbacks, but can be achieved.
Now is an excellent time to introduce or reintroduce residents to their own town center. Establishing dynamic, flourishing downtowns is hard work in normal times. Sustaining them in tenuous times is tougher. Yet, there’s a more widely recognized common interest in keeping a thriving downtown thriving, and in spreading the word about what makes your downtown special.
At the heart of effective communication is pride in what a particular downtown has to offer, the innovations that have come about in response to the new COVID world, the inventive endeavors launched by new partners and new collaborations, or well-known businesses and local personalities responding effectively to changed circumstances.
Folks who may have been too busy to give all of this a second thought before may linger on the message conveyed now. Residents who may not have noticed the new business that opened a year ago, or didn’t catch the announcement of a new program or service offered by a local organization or business – or the town itself – may be just thrilled to learn of it now.
We’re on computers, smart phones and an array of devices what seems like 24/7. Many of us are teaching class at the kitchen table, too. A compelling, creative message has the potential to break through to a receptive audience.
A marketplace or a festival, in-person or virtual — it’s the spirit that matters as much as the event. No matter how many people remember what they did, even more will remember how they felt. Communities can shine a bright light on what they have, what they can be and how far they can go -– without leaving the confines of their own downtown.
Local officials don’t need to be a voice in the wilderness. There’s a chorus out there waiting to be tapped, even if they’ve yet to realize it. Build on common ground, encourage collaboration, provide the latitude for grassroots initiatives to take root. You may be surprised how many people will enthusiastically and thankfully respond.
The good news is that if your town has a strong foundation in place, it can withstand all that COVID has wrought. If the foundation has been somewhat rickety, the current situation can, with maximized effort, shore it up. The better news is that everything done now can become initial steps towards the next giant leap for your community. Unchartered territory, mapped by immediate need, can prove to be solid ground on which even further progress can be constructed.
A great downtown exceeds the sum of its parts. No matter how many pieces are in the puzzle, they each have a place. Discerning what fits where should invoke adventure, engagement and enjoyment, and invitations for public participation should reflect that. Especially in these times of uncertainty and apprehension, the distinction will make a difference.
There’s no better time to shout the news from the hilltops. Just keep your distance.
Bernard Kavaler is Managing Principal of Express Strategies, a Connecticut public relations firm. He has served on the board of the Connecticut Main Street Center and as a Zoning Alternate for the West Hartford Town Council.