5 questions

By Susan Burns June 30, 2010

Creating Great Downtowns


Gary Ferguson has been the executive director of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance since 1999. In 2005, he won a fellowship from Cornell University to study downtowns across the country. The results of his research were published in his paper, “Characteristics of Great Small City Downtowns.” Active on state and international levels of downtown associations, Ferguson will be speaking in Sarasota Thursday, July 22, as part of an event series of The Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce’s new council, Assignment Downtown.


How do small cities differ from larger ones? The issues can be the same: How do you get housing built? How do you ensure safety and security? How do you recruit retail and retain businesses? But in smaller cities, you have fewer private sector partners. You have to convince them to invest here rather than another area. You have less access to public dollars because larger cities are calling on them. But small cities are fascinating since you have an opportunity to make big impacts.

How have downtowns changed in your 30-year career? In 1980, downtowns were at their lowest point. The depictions were all very negative in popular culture. That has certainly changed. Popular media and culture helped bring back the notion that downtowns are a place where you want to be. TV series like Friends had tremendous impact in getting a generation interested in living downtown.

What are some characteristics of great small downtowns? Downtowns need to have retail, active street-level commerce. When you go downtown, you make a judgment; you’re looking at the street and the businesses, and you’re going thumbs up or thumbs down. Push the boundaries to be 24/7. That means you have to have housing and entertainment downtown.

One of the key things that came out in our research is the concentration of pedestrian traffic destinations. This can be anything from a bowling alley, a museum, a church, a convention center, a performing arts center, a post office. These are traffic generators. By themselves they’re interesting, but when put together they become more powerful and one feeds off the other. Successful downtowns had a disproportionately high number of these destinations in close proximity. The average is 35. That’s a lot.

Can public policy and subsidies help create strong downtowns? There’s clearly a role for the public sector. I’ve been involved with letting the free market do its thing. But more times than not, it’s not a recipe for success. There’s a place for incentives in the arsenal. It’s difficult for subsidies to stimulate growth, but they can guide and direct it. In Ithaca, we have a tax abatement program for downtown that’s worked. It’s highly targeted. It’s very specific.

Sarasota can be a city of strong opinions. How do you get people to agree on a plan for downtown? Ithaca is a college community with a lot of Ph.D.s; everyone’s an expert on everything. We say that if you get 10 people together, you’ll get 20 opinions. You have to have the leadership to work through it, both private and public leadership. We also do long-term and short-term thinking. Some projects take five to 10 years, and the public and elected officials and merchants and businesses run out of patience, so you have to have small things happen along the way.


Assignment Downtown presents

“Best Practices in American Downtowns.”

National downtown expert Gary Ferguson, author of “Characteristics of Great Small City Downtowns,” and Brad Edmondson, a national writer, city authority and consultant who recently ranked cities across the U.S. for the AARP Guide to Great Places, will speak Thursday, July 22, 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., at the Hyatt Regency Sarasota, 1000 Boulevard of the Arts. The topic is “Best Practices in American Downtowns.” The event is part of The Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce’s Assignment Downtown Council 2010 speakers’ series. $25 ($35 at the door). RSVP to

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