Downtown should be ‘community living room,’ consultant says

photo of downtown caldwell
A river runs through it: Caldwell’s downtown revitalization started with the daylighting of Indian Creek. Photo by Sharon Fisher

Idaho cities that want to attract workers, particularly millennials and Gen Xers, need to be places where workers want to be.

That’s the message of Roger Brooks, a Peoria, Arizona-based expert on tourism promotion and community branding. He will speak Oct. 22 on “Economic Development, Small Communities” at the Sun Valley Inn in Sun Valley as part of the annual Idaho Conference on Recreation and Tourism, put on by the Idaho Department of Commerce.

Quality of life

photo of roger brooks
Roger Brooks

This is not Brooks’ first visit to Idaho. He has been meeting with Idaho cities for more than 10 years, most notably with Caldwell, which constructed its Indian Creek Plaza based on his advice.

“When I first started working in Idaho, the tallest building in Boise was six stories,” Brooks said. “Boise was this little podunk place and now look at it. It’s the hub of technology where young people want to live and work.”

Brooks isn’t alone in his admiration for Boise. Last year, Richard Florida, the author of the seminal book “The Rise of the Creative Class,” said something similar during his visit to Boise.

“Boise has become a destination for people who want a mountain lifestyle,” Florida said, citing the good food, good wine, good beer, many outdoor activities and generally good weather. “It’s cold, but sunny.”

Quality of life is now leading economic development, Brooks said.

“Jobs are going where the talent is, and where the talent wants to be,” he said.

Downtowns attract people

Part of that is an attractive downtown, Brooks said.

“The focus of every downtown in Idaho should be the community living room,” he said, pointing to Caldwell’s example. “This is where we go hang out after work and on weekends.”

But unlike baseball fields, you can’t just “build it and they will come.” Downtowns require activities to draw in the people, Brooks said.

“The key thing for communities in Idaho is for programming,” he said.

Without programming, it’s like having a living room with no television or games, just furniture.

“What would you do there?” Brooks said. “If there’s activity on their squares 250 days a year, that’s enough to sustain any retail business. Where people hang out, the retailers follow.”

And where locals hang out, tourists follow, Brooks said.

“If you, as locals, aren’t hanging out in downtown, neither will visitors,” he said. “If people in Caldwell go to Nampa, Boise and Meridian, that’s where visitors will go too.”

To attract people, cities need three things, Brooks said. First, they have to be known for something specific, such as skiing in Sun Valley or the lake in Coeur d’Alene.

Second, they need complementary activities.

“The top activity of visitors in the world is shopping, dining and entertainment in a pedestrian-friendly setting,” Brooks said, noting that that’s where 80% of non-lodging spending takes place.

Caldwell is reaping the fruits of its investment in downtown, Brooks said.

“I was out there in December and you couldn’t even find a place to park in the middle of the week because of the lights and ice skating,” he said. “Now private investment is spending millions in downtown Caldwell on restaurants and activities. It was started by creating the nucleus, and now the private sector is coming in. It takes a few years, but it’s going to be amazing.”

Third, cities need life after 6 p.m., Brooks said.

“70% of all brick-and-mortar retail spending is after 6 p.m.,” he said.

While Idaho is noted for outdoor activities such as skiing, hiking, biking and golfing, those are all during the day, he noted. “Then when we’re done, you’re closed.” That hurts workers as well because they can’t shop after work, he added.

“Smaller communities are still kind of stuck on ‘we want to go back to the way it used to be,’” Brooks said. “That’s no longer an option. There’s no going back to being Mayberry. That’s a big message for most of Idaho.”