What we need to know for a vibrant downtown

For a brief moment this article was going to be focused on what happened to downtown Parkersburg, but quickly changed course to what we need to know to reignite it. Looking back has valuable lessons, but we should save that discussion for another time.

First, we should understand how downtowns work. Or don’t work, for that matter.

You see, downtown redevelopment can be very rewarding, but it’s tricky. Many developers smartly develop near malls, where success seems more predictable.

Who can blame them? A friend of mine calls that kind of growth “low-hanging-fruit development.” Having been in the bar business, I’m familiar with the old adage that nothing draws a crowd like a crowd, but there’s more to the issue than that.

It is my opinion that the main challenge in bringing downtown Parkersburg back may well be that of vision (or lack of). Let me tell you why I think this, in my roundabout way, of course.

I recently read a Harvard University study that determined business deals improved when people discuss important matters over a meal. So what does this study have to do with an understanding and vision for downtown? Here you go.

We are all social critters, and thrive when we are in multi-faceted social settings with different people and diverse conversation. Malls, fast food, and chain retailers can’t provide much of that kind of social interaction because they’re too efficient and specialized.

Frankly, many U.S. downtowns have died because they became homogenized and sterilized by choosing the handiness and accessibility of chain restaurants, retailers, hotels, and, dare I say it, convenience stores.

I’m from a small town and I remember going downtown with my dad as a kid. At the time, I hated it because a simple 20 minute trip usually took more than two hours. He talked to everybody he knew. And he knew everybody.

As I’m older, I now realize that the quality of my “community experience” happens when I visit with my neighbors, friends, clerks, bankers, shop owners, and other businessmen. It doesn’t necessarily improve with predictable restaurants, standardized retail, or even ample parking.

When we live in diverse neighborhoods we learn to live more abundantly. We are forced to deal with each other, make allowances, and meet people that in our path. We might even be forced to stop, visit, and help someone else. We may have to learn to get along with people we don’t necessarily like. Wow!

I’m not telling you that visiting with your neighbor will make a vibrant downtown.

But spending quality time with others, discussing important matters, can lead neighbors collectively creating a community vision. And developers go where they can see vision. And where there’s a vision, people prosper.

By the way, if you’re ever in downtown Monahans, Texas, tell them you know A.W.’s youngest boy. After 40 years, that’s still how they know me.

* * *

Cecil Childress is General Manager of the Blennerhassett Hotel and Chairman of Downtown PKB.