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Activating Blocks

Casey Woods by Casey Woods, Executive Director | August 7, 2016
Listening to the descriptions of local citizens as they describe an area in their community is telling.  In one area, a consumer may say “this block is alive” and in another area, they may look and say “this block is dead”.  The activation of areas within a community is a combination of consumer science and a little bit of art with some psychology thrown in for good measure.  Communities that figure out how to activate areas grow, while inactive areas continue to shrink and dilapidate.
In this e-news, we will discuss activating specific geographic areas to promote consumer traffic.  A portion of the information presented was obtained from volunteers that attended the National Main Street conference.


1.  The design of an area plays heavily into the concept of activation.  People want a lot of things to do within close proximity to one another, and people generally want to be around other people.  So, areas that create density within their building spaces, mix uses and create uniform set backs have a higher initial potential for activation.  Buildings that “stick out” because they don’t have a uniform set back, they aren’t a consistent height, they don’t use appropriate materials (etc.) will have a harder time activating an area.  When we build in an area, we have to consider how the building integrates with its surroundings to complete a “fabric”, and avoid looking at buildings as “stand alone” developments.
2.  A long term approach to tenant selection should be strongly encouraged.  Obviously, a tenant needs the financial capacity to pay rent and the business acumen to run a successful business, but there are other considerations which must be part of the activation process.  Certain types of businesses may be great for rent, but they have a poor record of consistently driving consumer traffic.  These “office” or “medical” types of businesses are very important to a downtown, but they should be coordinated with other types of uses within larger spaces when possible.
3.  Typical block activators include restaurants, retailers and other businesses that depend on consistent traffic and view the sidewalk as an extension of their business.  Some service businesses can fall within this category, and many service businesses are combining with different types of businesses to create “shared spaces” (think about Gravel City Roasters combined with ERG as a good example of a shared space.)
4.  Block activators view themselves as part of a larger whole, that goes beyond their immediate business or immediate area (block).  We’ve had businesses that didn’t like downtown because the events and activities created foot traffic that resulted in “just looking” styles of consumers.  Some businesses don’t like cooperating with other businesses, and would prefer a type of consumer that simply shops with them without engaging the experience of the area.  A landlord may want to anticipate the long term implications of a “stand alone” philosophy- particularly for entrepreneurial style businesses.
5.  Active blocks have extended hours and days of activity.  If you have businesses that are simply open three days a week, or a block of businesses without weekend hours, that block will be inactive.  Most active blocks have some sort of activity eighteen hours per day.  The extended duration of activity creates more consumer opportunities, which normally results in more sales.
6.  Block activators proactively seek consumers through targeted marketing efforts.  Businesses that take a passive approach and wait for consumers to “come to them” won’t create the type of traffic to consistently activate a block.  Businesses that create internal events, consistently market and actively invite consumers have a residual impact on neighbors.
7.  Active blocks have consistent businesses.  Nothing frustrates a consumer more than finding out a business is randomly closed, they are out of a product or they’ve made themselves less convenient to spend with.  Businesses that build traffic understand the importance of spontaneity, but certain levels of service need consistent attention so consumers can build trust.


Landlords are constantly faced with the pros and cons of placing businesses within their facilities.  Businesses that leave a facility rarely blame themselves for their exit, and “location” or “the landlord” often become convenient recipients of blame.  By looking at better design to share spaces and becoming a little more discerning with tenant selection, landlords can create long term relationships.  Businesses that activate blocks can generate more revenue, which provides consistent inflows for landlords and creates more value for the area.  A revolving door for businesses can create concerns for an area, and the resulting instability of inflows can lead to a lack of investment in buildings by landlords which ultimately causes dilapidation.  An appropriate mixture of businesses with an emphasis on block activation can result in long term success for everyone involved.

About the Author

Casey Woods, Executive Director

Before accepting the director position in March of 2009, Casey worked in both retail and agricultural jobs in the family businesses. A lifelong resident of the Emporia Area, Casey was a ten year volunteer for Emporia Main Street prior to his appointment as director. During that time he served as the board president and chair of the Economic Vitality Committee.

Casey also serves as a partner in PlaceMakers, LLC, a consulting firm that routinely works with both large and small communities, and their businesses, to promote sustainable economic growth through community and economic development practices. Casey consults with businesses, organizations and communities to understand their market capacity and fill vacant spaces. He has been involved in two projects that included crowdfunding as a part of their overall business funding strategies, Radius Brewing and Twin Rivers Winery & Gourmet Shoppe.


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