Last week I attended the Iowa Downtown Conference in Sioux City, hosted by the Iowa Economic Development Authority. I have been to many conferences in my career but this was one of the better ones. The sessions were an appropriate mix of brainstorming and theoretical discussions paired with case studies and toolkits. I was inspired by the energy and community leadership represented, both rural and urban communities alike. It was a strong group of people who love where they live and are working every day to make it stronger. If you are interested in learning more about the conference, check out the website or go straight to their agenda.
My conference experience started off a bit fuzzy, as in I was completely exhausted. Sioux City is 3 hours from Des Moines and due to State travel policy, I had to leave from the office. I was using a state vehicle so I drove from Ankeny to the office garage, switched cars, and was on my way by 5:15. Also, there are now gadgets in all the state cars monitoring your speed (allegedly…), so I had to drive the speed limit. For three hours. It was a cruel kind of torture and took forever. I literally was a hazard a few times when NO ONE was going the speed limit.
But I digress…
I made it to Sioux City at just about 8:30am, when the conference opening session was scheduled to start. I had not noted that the opening session was not in the conference center but rather a 15 minute walk away… so I quickly signed into registration and walked to the opening session, making it just in time for Ed McMahon to take the stage. Ed McMahon works at the Urban Land Institute and presented on sustainable development and the secrets of successful communities. The secrets focus on working with what you have, highlighting your assets, and focusing on your individuality. He made some great points that especially speak to those communities who are always comparing themselves to others rather than focusing on their strengths.
The first small session I went to was “Strong Entrepreneurial Cultures in Downtown” which covered the evolution of creating a startup entrepreneur culture and how to start your own. This session wasn’t directly related to my current position but was really interesting. I especially enjoyed hearing from Diane Daby who is the owner of Springboard Coworking, a shared office space in downtown Sioux City for the growing entrepreneurial, start up and remote working community. The office environment she created is amazing and could be relatively easily replicated in any city across the country to support growing businesses.
Afterwards I went to lunch at a local restaurant, SoHo Kitchen and Bar, on the Main Street and within walking distance of the conference center. The first post-lunch session was “Change your Culture. Grow your Community.” Which focused on the “WUCA!-izing concept created by the presenters, Frank and Kimberlee Spillers. The basis of their presentation is the importance of being welcoming, understanding, comforting, and appreciative when growing your community. It was an interesting and high energy presentation.
The last small session of the day that I attended was “DIY Placemaking for Commercial Districts” which I loved. The presenter was Max Musicant and he has a firm that has pioneered a holistic and organic approach to the creation of place that integrates design, events and management systems. His presentation focused on the creation of spaces in downtowns or retail frontages that are welcoming and interactive to create great spaces to live, work, and play. He also led a hands-on activity where small group transformed the common areas within the conference center to make them more attractive and approachable.
The day wrapped up with a session by Brad Segal on the “Top 10 Global Trends Affecting Downtowns and How to Respond At Home”. This session included the latest market research conducted by P.U.M.A. (Progressive Urban Management Associates), which benchmarked local growth and changes in demographics; housing; employment; office and retail vacancies; mobility and connectivity; hospitality and tourism; arts, culture and entertainment; education; and the nighttime economy. It was a really interesting statistical analysis of global trends and how those trends make it better than ever to reinvigorate downtowns as people are flocking back into medium to small size downtowns.
There was an evening networking event at the Hard Rock Casino however I could barely stay awake during some of my sessions due to lack of sleep and my head cold lingering so I opted for the hotel room and an early night. I ordered in pizza, watched HGTV, and blogged about RAGBRAI!
The next morning started a little later in the morning, 9:15. The day opened with the same speaker I saw in a small session the day before, Max Musicant. He presented on “Placemaking: Shaping the Future of Our Communities”. While he repeated a lot of the same points as the day before, I really appreciated his message on the importance of traditional downtowns for our society; how culture shapes places; the necessity of using opportunity rather than challenge as our frame of action; and how to use empathy to enhance places and create vibrancy. He was a great speaker and really engaged the crowd in the simple ways to improve your spaces and make them more vibrant.
The first small session I attended on Thursday was “Donations, Donuts, and Downtowns: Using Crowdfunding and Crowdgranting to Invigorate Community/Economic Development”. The speaker was Rob St. Mary from Patronicity and my boss and I had actually talked with his a couple weeks earlier on potential partnerships with their crowdgranting platform. The presentation as a whole was an interesting look at the benefits of crowdfunding and how to kickstart a crowdfunding effort in your town.
After the first small session it was already lunch time and I went to a local deli spot, Little Chicago Deli, downtown that was highly ranked on Yelp! It was delicious and I enjoyed catching up on my emails during the break.
The last small session that I attended was “Slated for Survival, a Small-Town Downtown Revitalization”, presented by Mike Fisher. The presentation provided information on how the private sector can redevelop a tired building into a sustainable commercial office or retail space. It was a personal case study of the experience Mike Fisher has had and continues to have with the firm he works for. They purchased a historic but dilapidated building in the middle of a small town main street and have been working on renovations from the inside out. It was an interesting story about the steps it takes and the resources that can help.
The closing session keynote speaker was Bill Withers on “Why You?” Bill challenged the listeners to think about what makes our communities truly unique across the ever-changing landscape, and how best to leverage assets as we reinvent our success. Bill was a very energetic speaker who made everyone think about what they are doing in their community and what more can be done.
Overall, the conference sessions I attended pushed home the importance of asset-mapping, highlighting unique characteristics, and being welcoming of change in order to effectively adapt to the current world paradigm.
I really am happy that I attended and I look forward to next year’s conference. Hopefully next year I can either present on the programs offered within the Iowa Arts Council and/or Department of Cultural Affairs or host an exhibit on our resources so the downtown representatives from around the state can learn about various cultural programs available.
Thoughts from you:
- Do you go to many work conferences?
- What makes your community someplace that you love to live, work, and play in?