Experts advise local businesses

By Colin Willard, Staff Writer
Posted 9/13/23

VIENNA — Vienna Main Street is hosting a team of specialists who plan to share resources and expertise for how to revitalize downtown Vienna.

Missouri Main Street Connection (MMSC) is a …

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Experts advise local businesses


VIENNA — Vienna Main Street is hosting a team of specialists who plan to share resources and expertise for how to revitalize downtown Vienna.

Missouri Main Street Connection (MMSC) is a statewide nonprofit organization with the goal of stimulating economic development through the preservation of historic downtown areas. More than 170 commercial districts throughout the state participate in the program. The team came to Vienna through a grant from the United States Department of Agriculture.

The team visiting Vienna this week includes MMSC’s Senior Program Specialist Ben White; Jim Thompson, an economic vitality specialist with Main Street Iowa; Randy Wilson, an architect with South Carolina-based Community Design Solutions and Ben Muldrow, a brand specialist with South Carolina-based economic development firm Arnett Muldrow & Associates.

The visitors spent Monday afternoon touring Vienna’s downtown area and meeting with the owners of businesses and properties in the area. They also met with city officials before hosting a presentation for community members.

Thompson presented first on Monday evening at the Vienna Library. He said he had been working with MMSC for about 15 years, and the work has taken him all over the state. As an employee of the Iowa Department of Economic Development, some of his highest priorities are child care and housing.

“Without either one, you don’t get people moving to your town,” he said.

Thompson said a great downtown is a place that people want to visit, do business and choose to live. When people want to gather in an area, property values will increase.

Thompson listed three actions that contribute to the economic development of downtown areas: assessing what is there, developing buildings and developing properties.

Assessing what is there includes recognizing the history of the downtown district. Thompson said Vienna Main Street group’s building and business inventory made him proud because they know the history of the area. Having an inventory helps not only in economic development but also in recovery from a fire or natural disaster.

Thompson also said Vienna Main Street had done a good job with surveys. After the group published a survey last fall about what businesses people would like to see in Vienna, a couple of coffee shops opened in town. Coffee shops were one of the survey’s top answers, along with restaurants and ice cream shops.

“Entrepreneurs are sitting at home tonight,” Thompson said. “Right now, sitting around a table or watching TV saying ‘I’m sick of my job. I’d love to open a restaurant.’ Why not say we want a restaurant downtown?”

Thompson said his first impression of downtown Vienna was that he could not tell if there was business activity happening. He said signage and posting hours can help with that.

“I hate it when I walk by a store and I don’t know whether they’re open or closed,” he said. “I can’t tell when they’re open or closed and I can’t tell what their address is.”

Thompson also recommended recognizing businesses for more than just openings. The Vienna Chamber of Commerce hosts ribbon cuttings for new businesses, but Thompson said Vienna Main Street could also celebrate milestone anniversaries. Social media is another tool the group can use to acknowledge businesses for quality customer service.

Another recommendation was to identify gaps in goods and services. Thompson said consumers can buy some products online, but businesses such as coffee shops, restaurants or bakeries  have physical locations. If those kinds of businesses operate locally, then residents will not need to look for them somewhere else.

Thompson shifted focus to property development. He said vacant buildings offer no return on investment. Buildings create a cycle of investment: occupied buildings lead to income from rent. Money from rent leads to money for repairs. Well-maintained buildings attract tenants. He described buildings that owners do not maintain as suffering from “demolition by neglect.”

“Demolition by neglect is happening all over in downtowns, and we can’t allow that to happen here,” he said. “I walked by some today, and I’m concerned that it’s going to be an issue here.”

Thompson said Vienna Main Street should not try to “reinvent the wheel” with its revitalization plans. Many other towns have gone through a similar process, so the group can look to those as a guide. It can distribute information, such as checklists on what owners need to start a new business, to entrepreneurs.

Business recruitment ideas that Thompson shared included both marketing strategies such as putting signs in vacant storefronts that suggest “this could be a pizzeria” and incentives for opening new businesses such as grants and tax credits.

Thompson also recommended participation in activities such as educational workshops and retail events to encourage business in the downtown district.

At the end of his presentation, Thompson shared a quote: “Negative people have a problem for every solution.” He said making excuses for why something will not work will only get in the way of progress on the project. The best way for the group to accomplish its goals is to find a way instead of an excuse.

Wilson presented next. He began by saying sociologists have found people make their first impressions of others about three seconds after seeing them.

“Guess how long it takes me to figure out how (Vienna) is doing related to design,” he said. “That fast. You can’t hide design because design is everything. It’s physical and visual.”

Wilson compared his downtowns to houses. The gateway is like first seeing a house from the outside. The gateways to a city do not reflect city limits. Instead, they serve as an indicator to people traveling that they have reached their destination.

One example Wilson shared of a gateway is a traditional welcome sign. Another idea was to paint the water tower to give it more of a city-specific identity.

“A lot of people are under the impression that you have to paint them either white or baby blue,” he said. “That’s not true. You can paint them any color you want. You’re talking thousands of dollars worth of branding just sitting there waiting to be taken advantage of.”

Wilson showed an example from Macon, Georgia. In the before image, a rusted railroad bridge served as the gateway to the city. Wilson said the image failed to convey the rich culture of the city, which includes the Tubman African American Museum, the Georgia Music Hall of Fame and the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame. In the after image, the bridge received a new painted design with local iconography celebrating Macon’s culture.

“We changed that gateway to go from a nasty, rusted-out train trestle to something that announces arrival and foreshadows all of those key destinations,” Wilson said. “You only get one chance to make a first impression.”

The next section of the city is the thoroughfare. In the city, thoroughfares are the paths from the gateways to downtown. In his house metaphor, Wilson compared it to the walkway from the parking space to the front porch.

Wilson said Vienna’s thoroughfares are more straightforward than some other places because almost the entire town sits on one side of Highway 63. He said the structure makes the presentation of thoroughfares simple. The key is to make sure they do not inaccurately represent the downtown experience. An example showed postcards from the coastal town of Beaufort, South Carolina. When Wilson showed the view from the highway leading into Beaufort, the image was drab and did not match the tourist aesthetic the town conveyed closer to the coast.

“I want you to avoid the ‘Beaufort Syndrome,’ where the experience of getting to the place is just truly unsightly as compared to arrival in the place,” Wilson said. “You at least want to foreshadow that experience and make it compatible.”

Wilson recommended actions such as planting trees or hanging banners on the poles around Vienna to help improve the identity of the thoroughfares.

The next place Wilson discussed is the arrival point downtown or the front door of a house. He said he is always surprised by a lack of signage directing people to a downtown district.

“When (people) get to the downtown cohort, and in your case it’s primarily the square, you need to welcome them again,” Wilson said. “This core area is yet again different from any other place in the life of the Vienna community.”

Next, Wilson compared the streetscapes to the hallways of a house. He listed four things he looks for that make a successful streetscape: canopy, corners, crosswalks and comfort.

“It amazes the impact visually and in terms of comfort that it makes to have shade trees in your downtown,” he said. “It creates opportunities for people to see and be seen and have outdoor dining. When people see other people being active, that’s when they know your downtown is alive and it’s vibrant.”

About the corners in downtown Vienna, Wilson said they are easy to identify because they are the corners of the courthouse square. Corners are important because the intersection of roads causes both pedestrians and motorists to pause and consider where they can go next. Wilson recommended adding flowers to corners for more vibrancy downtown.

Wilson pointed out that Vienna has no crosswalks in the downtown area. He recommended at a minimum painting striped crosswalks in a few places.

For the final point, comfort, Wilson said it would be good to have easily accessible public restrooms and trash cans downtown so people do not have to go searching for them. He compared it to throwing a house party because guests will surely ask about those two things.

The buildings and facades of downtown are like the entry of a house, and the interior of each building is like a room. Wilson’s recommendation for improving the exteriors of buildings was to go for a more natural look. Removing coverings can return a building to its historical look. Adding a new coat of paint can give it an appearance like it may have had when originally built. Wilson said updating the exterior of one building at a time might not make a big difference in the overall appearance of downtown, but a few in succession can add some life to the area.

Wilson suggested adding images to the fronts of vacant buildings to improve their appearance. Some examples spotlighted local people while others showcased the town’s historic imagery.

“What’s remarkable about something as simple as this is it not only masks the fact that the building is vacant or takes the edge off,” Wilson said. “It also can build community pride.”

Wilson also talked about creating parks in the downtown area that have more than one purpose to attract a wide group of people. He said programming events at parks is crucial to encourage people to get out and visit them.

The last place Wilson talked about was what he considered the life of downtown: the sidewalks.

“To get to your buildings, you have to walk on the sidewalks,” he said. “I want you to maximize their effectiveness, their entertainment value, their interactivity. Chock them full of planters, flowers, benches. Experience and environment trump architecture every time.”

Wilson recommended placing some games and activities in public spaces such as small parks and sidewalks downtown to attract people to get out and enjoy the area.

Muldrow was the last presenter. He briefly discussed promoting the downtown district through retail events and purposeful community service projects. He also discussed creating a town branding and establishing it through events such as annual festivals.

The MMSC team will conclude its visit on Wednesday, Sept. 13 with another presentation for the public at 8 a.m. at the Maries County Bank in Vienna.


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