Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A Phone System for On-the-Go & On-the-Road Main Streeters

Jonathan_W via flickr Creative Commons
Don't be chained to your desk when you're expecting a call! (c) Jonathan_W via flickr
I am a huge fan of technology. Time to time I am going to talk about helpful tools and software that can help you do your job. Today, we are going to talk about a phone system made for Main Streeters.

If you are like me, you don’t love the idea of giving your private cell phone number out to everyone. But Main Street managers, and others who spend a significant amount of time away from their desks, either have to use their private cell or carry around a work cell phone, too.

But, there is a cool solution to this problem. There is a company called Simple Signal that gives you one office phone number that you can use at your desk phone and your cell. Why is it cool? You can make and take work calls from your private cell phone and your phone number shows up as your office phone.

This protects your private phone number, but it also means you don’t miss important phone calls when you have to be away from your desk and you don’t need to carry two phones or check multiple mail boxes, since everything is integrated into one inbox (time saving!). Another neat feature – voice mails can be converted into text so you can read incoming messages while you are in a boring meeting, and you keep your current phone number.

Their technology actually integrates your landline, cellular phones, your tablet (like an iPad), and your computer. So a conversation started at your desk phone can be continued on your cell or tablet if you need to run out. It’s an internet-based phone system so all you need is an internet connection. If you prefer texting – you can do that, too, from both your phone and your computer using your desk phone number! 

There are video features, too. You can make video calls to put a face with a voice through your tablet, smart phone, or computer’s web cam. The video collaboration features seem pretty cool for Main Street programs who want to have remote board or committee meetings that are a more personal than voice-only conference calls. If you want to do a conference call, you can set them up for up to 14 people with no notice or set-up required.

While we are talking about collaboration, have you ever been on a call when you are referring to a file, a website, an image… or really anything that lives on your computer that you wish you could just show to the person you are talking to in real time? Before, I have used webinar software to do this – especially when I ran committee meetings where I took notes real time and recorded group decisions on a shared document. Simple Signal lets you share a document, your desktop, a webpage all in real time during your conversation. This can make your phone calls and phone meetings more productive and effective. There is no, “let me email that file to you and we can talk about it after you get a chance to look at it.” Things can happen much quicker and your conversations can be more dynamic. Plus, you can record your calls (as long as you have permission of all parties) so you don’t forget any great ideas that came up in a brainstorming session.

If you get phones for your staff members or active board members and committee chairs, you can call them by dialing their extension. They can give out their work number, and it can roll over to their computer, tablet, or cell phone, too. This can add to the professionalism of your office.

I think video calls can be a great way to keep people engaged in a conversation. Main Street coordinating programs, too, can really get a lot of use from these features. Long distance calls are free, so the entire Main Street world can keep in touch. And you get unlimited minutes, so talk till the cows come home.

I am pretty excited about this tool and I feel like it fits with Main Streeters’ needs so seamlessly. And, the only reason why I know about it is because my friend works for Simple Signal. And any friend of mine is a friend of Main Street and City Thrive readers, so he is offering a discount for you all. You can save 20% on the service – so for example, if you do a three-year contract, you pay $35 per phone each month for the premium level, and $25 per phone each month for standard. Premium just has some extra features. If you want each phone to have a different number, you pay $1 more.

Shoot him an email and tell him that you read Andrea’s blog and are interested in learning more. Your name won’t be added to a marketing list and he won’t badger you. You’ll just get some info to learn more about it and a chance to ask questions. This isn’t a limited-time offer, either. If you want to think about it, squirrel this cool technology and the discount away in the back of your mind.

Below is a video with some technical stuff that I couldn't really explain to you if I tried. 

Thursday, February 7, 2013

If We Decide Main Streets are Things of the Past, We are Committing Community Suicide

Franklin, Tenn., a Great American Main Street winner
In his blog posting on Switchboard, “Are Main Streets a Thing of the Past? Is that Ok?” Kaid Benfield suggests as much as he likes Main Streets, they are destined to be a distant memory of their once-thriving past. I have learned much from Kaid, as I am an avid reader of his posts on Switchboard and Sustainable Cities Collective. But I have worked with Main Street communities for 10 years, and have seen downtowns achieve outstanding successes. Main Street revitalization programs rally the community’s support to reinvent themselves through grassroots-driven, strategic economic development. I want to keep this dialog going.

I won’t pretend that every Main Street revitalization program has been successful - I've been to some crummy places. “Main Street” certainly does have a muddied definition because so many people (and companies) claim it. And I won’t pretend that I don’t enjoy a little ruin porn. But holding up Sandy Sorlien’s depressing, yet still beautiful, photographs as evidence that Main Street is dead puts a cloud over the thousands of existing communities working towards vibrancy. I am going to do the reverse and give you my optimistic photos and perspective and throw a few stats at you. The National Trust Main Street Center tracks the cumulative reinvestment data of its national network of local communities and reports: $53.6 billion in total reinvestment; 104,961 net gain in businesses; 448,835 net gain in jobs; 229,164 building rehabs; and a reinvestment ratio of $18:1. Those aren’t numbers of a failure.

Kaid's blog states: “A by-the-numbers environmentalist may not have a reason to: if land consumption is reasonably limited by new models, if places are walkable and reduce car trips and emissions by placing shops, services and people close together, if they are well located (and especially if also transit-served), why worry if someone’s sentimental bit of Americana isn’t what it used to be?”

Fruitvale, Ca., transit-oriented development
I, too, appreciate density…in proportion to scale. While downtowns have more density than sprawling suburbs, they don’t have the density of Manhattan; but America will never be a series of Manhattans, because not everyone wants that lifestyle or their jobs are connected to agriculture in rural areas. We shouldn’t abandon small towns for metropolises of glass towers when we can invest in and build on what’s already here. Density and adding transit-oriented development and infrastructure in older places is being done well – just look at the highly celebrated successes of Fruitvale in California.

I ask the by-the-numbers environmentalists, what is the impact to our environment if we demolished those 229,164 buildings that the Main Street network rehabbed? I am not worried about people who don’t care about being sentimental. I am worried about people who don’t care about embodied energy. The work of the National Trust’s Preservation Green Lab proved that “when comparing buildings of equivalent size and function, building reuse almost always offers environmental savings over demolition and new construction.”

The sweet spot for the Main Street Four-Point Approach to commercial district revitalization is in places with populations under 50,000 – of which there are 30,000 in the US. A former director of the National Trust Main Street Center once suggested that there are at least 30,000 central business districts in need of some level of reinvestment; and within those places, there are probably 3 million older and historic buildings needing some TLC and even green retrofits, and 5 million small and independent businesses giving new life to those older buildings. Throwing away those 30,000 existing communities is a horrific idea – but when we declare the death of Main Street and believe they are only good for remembering Americana – we are committing community suicide.

Environmentalists can’t afford to be so linear in their thinking. In fact, that is why I think the sustainability movement is so critical. It blends three important areas that traditionally had been silo’ed – environment, economics, everybody.

Lifestyle center in Clarendon (Arlington, Va)
It's not just about embodied energy. It's about embodied history, culture, and craftsmanship. But social sustainability is too often under-appreciated. Maybe because it acknowledges the “soft” assets of a community – the smaller buildings where independent businesses can afford a commercial lease or mortgage, “third places” for public gathering, sense of pride, inclusion and civic engagement, gorgeous architecture (that we can’t afford to build anymore), a structures that tell the stories of our nation. Our history and our built environment is of great value to Americans – note the surging support for preservation after New York’s Penn Station was demolished. I’d be shocked if in 100 years from now, people have a similar reaction to tearing down lifestyle centers, although I do feel they are a better way to develop the suburbs. (On a more personal level, I have yet to have a memorable experience in front of the isolated fountain by the Crate and Barrel in Clarendon’s lifestyle center.)

On the economic side of things – the National Trust for Historic Preservation didn’t form the Main Street Center because of nostalgia. It figured out that comprehensive revitalization and economic development (the Main Street Four-Point Approach) can save historic buildings. The economics piece trumps preservation so much that the Trust is spinning the Center off as a subsidiary.

Good customer service in Rogersville, Tenn.
When you are restructuring an economy that sat idle for 30 years, your work is cut out for you. But you take inventory of your assets, opportunities, and what your competition does better and you figure out what your position is in the marketplace. Then you work your ass off to get there. Sometimes, it is becoming a travel destination or building on the good fortune of being in a college town – but most of the time it about discovering the sales leakage and pent up customer demand for products and services and finding ways to plug the leak and meet the demand. These aren’t magical economic circumstances; they are results of market analysis. We can’t buy socks on most Main Streets anymore. But, let Walmart sell those. Main Street is better off being a home for unique independent restaurants and shops, where attention is placed on providing an experience and personalized customer service.

Here are just two quick success stories of successful Main Street districts that aren’t tourism destinations and aren’t wealthy bedroom communities of larger cities.

Artsy, quirky cool Old Town Lansing, Mich
  • The local Main Street program in Old Town Lansing, Michigan, began in 1996 amidst crime, grime, and a 90% vacancy rate. The changes from applying the Main Street approach are dramatic – 13 businesses open during the recession and today there is an 11% vacancy rate and the district saw $55,800 in public investment and $6,231,531 in private investment. Entrepreneurs and artists made a commitment to the community and led with arts-related development. Artist-created public art and street furniture, arts-related businesses and galleries, and arts-oriented events brought people back.
Before & after of the "Pink Palace" a community-led rehab
  • Jacksonville, Illinois, is a small town with a population of 19,466. When its Main Street program started in 1999, the commercial vacancy rate was 27%. Today it is 6%. Urban Renewal decimated the downtown and shattered the spirit of the local people. But the people persevered despite all odds – little support at the start of implementing the Main Street Approach, high crime rate, and no economic bullet. $17 million in private reinvestment and $7 million in public improvements later – their Main Street is thriving. The Main Street program spearheaded rehab of a historic home that had became a haven for drug users and transients at the district’s gateway. People volunteered their time and resources - the bank donated the money that would have been used for demolition, trade school teachers taught students how to perform tuck pointing and other skills, and prison laborers help get the job done. Once complete, the home was sold for $20,000 more than what real estate experts said it could and the day-to-night change in appearance sparked $85,000 in investment in nearby homes.
A blog entitled “Are Main Streets a Thing of the Past? Is that Ok?” has already decided that they are relics. But Main Street towns are still here – they were built with pride and built to last. Keeping them going is the highest level of recycling and realizes the goals of smart growth. Reviving an economy isn’t easy; big box stores and e-commerce are challenges, and, hell, financing rehabs and mixed-use projects today is tough. But it is being done – so, please, let us talk about that. People aren’t saving Main Streets because of idealized visions of Mayberry. They save them because they are great places to live, visit, and work and with strategic economic development efforts and the support of the community, they will always have a future.
Culpeper, Va., community members celebrating a new public art installation done by a local artist