‘Ninja upgrades,’ other ideas shared by McCray
LADD — Representatives from several area rural communities gathered Thursday in Hall High School auditorium to hear nationally known speaker Becky McCray share ideas and concepts specifically geared toward rural and small-town development.
McCray brought a wealth of information about rural trends and innovative business models proven to spark development in small downtowns and help rural entrepreneurs get their businesses off the ground.
Following the morning-long presentations, McCray then met with officials in Ladd where she conducted a walk-through of the downtown and pointed out where small changes could be made to enhances to liven up the area, which in turn could spark excitement about the village’s unique charm.
While she spoke about Ladd’s downtown, she explained the ideas could be modified to fit any small American downtown.
Just a few of her ideas included painting attractive murals on the side of downtown buildings, sprucing up public seating to create more inviting spaces, setting up a pop-up ice cream shop in an open area to create more foot traffic, and creating unique displays in the windows of empty buildings to add an attractive touch to something that was once sitting empty and dusty.
McCray talked about incorporating “ninja upgrades,” as she called them, in areas that just needed a coat of paint or maybe flowers in the empty planters outside — small upgrades that could be done overnight with a little help from volunteers.
In open grassy lots in a downtown, McCray suggested using the space for community pop-ups, which might include giving the space to a community group each month to do what they wish with the lot. This would keep ideas fresh and provide a little activity in a space that otherwise sits open most of the year.
Some ideas she’d seen other small towns do are petting zoos, flee markets, farmers markets, community gardens and even in one town, a library created an “Alice in Wonderland” themed tea party.
She said events like these helped to bring people together and get them excited about activities happening in their downtown.
When someone asked about insurance and liability issues for village property, McCray suggested getting sponsors to cover the cost of insurance and then display a sign with the sponsor’s logo. She said most times when people bring up the concern of liability, they’re usually the naysayers of the project. She urged people to not let them hold back good ideas.
In Ladd, many of the downtown buildings serve as residences, rather than businesses. McCray said that is a common trend in rural America. While residences are not attracting the foot traffic businesses would, McCray said one way to get around that was to get the residents together and plan a downtown event that would get them out and about and make them feel a part of their downtown.
Following the walk-through, the group met in the Ladd Community Center where McCray continued to answer questions from representatives eager for advice on issues they had with spurring economic development in their own downtowns.
During this discussion, McCray shared a common issue many small towns deal with, which is residents having a sour attitude about what their town used to be before the big factory closed up and moved away. She explained many people are stuck in the mindset of “what our town used to be,” and need to be more focused on “what the town can be.”
She shared a success story about a small Iowa town that was down on itself after its factory picked up and moved away. When a new chamber of commerce director was hired, she decided to roll up her sleeves and find new opportunity that hadn’t been sucked out by the factory when it left. She discovered it among several empty buildings in the downtown.
The chamber director decided to hold a tour of the empty buildings, knowing full well it would be one way to get people talking about the spaces and potential of what they could be.
She got several building owners, who were interested in selling their space, to sweep it up and make it look presentable enough to be included on the tour. On the day of the event, she put a real estate agent in each building and people came from all over town and beyond to get a look at the spaces that had been kept shut up for some time.
The results ended up being successful. Most of the spots were filled, and it spurred excitement about the revival in the downtown.
The idea of the tour of empty buildings has been widely shared across America, and many rural communities have caught on and put on their own version of the tour to get people talking about what could be done with old, empty buildings in small downtowns.