Saturday, July 20, 2019
Roger Brooks Touts the Secret Sauce to Building a Town with Vitality
The City of Ketchum added to its list of activities in Ketchum Town Square this summer with a new Friday-night concert series during September and even a performance by a juggler that filled the square with elbow-to-elbow spectators. But successful cities should aim for at least a couple hundred days of activities a year, said Roger Brooks.
Monday, November 5, 2018


Roger Brooks spends 350 days a year sleeping in strange beds. It’s what you do when you’re tasked with making over towns and cities into places where everyone wants to be.

He has worked with more than a thousand destinations in 45 states, as well as a few cities outside the United States. And on Tuesday he came to Sun Valley to offer a blueprint residents of Sun Valley, Ketchum, Hailey and Bellevue can follow in honing their towns’ status as destination tourism magnets.

Chief, Brooks said, is creating spaces where locals want to hang out.

“If you don’t like to hang out in your own town, neither will visitors,” Brown told a sell-out crowd of about 275 people at the seventh annual Economic Summit put on by Sun Valley Economic Development in Sun Valley Resort’s  Limelight Room.

“Locals should provide the break-even point for retailers and restaurateurs,” he added, “And tourists should provide the profits.”

Brooks was managing tours for bands like Fleetwood Mac and Earth, Wind & Fire, when Idaho’s Paul Revere of Paul Revere & the Raiders encouraged him to channel his talents toward place making. He accepted a request to develop Whistler ski area in British Columbia into a world-class destination resort.

And, after designing resorts for 10 years, he turned to towns, beginning with Ocean Shores, Wash., which had been nicknamed “Open Sores.”

The key, Brooks said, is finding that something that sets you apart from everyone else. El Dorado, Ark., for instance, has branded itself as the entertainment capitol of its state with 300-plus days of entertainment. Caldwell, Idaho, sets itself apart with its wineries. Edmonton, Alberta prides itself on being a party city. And Appleton, Wis., has branded itself with the motto “It’s showtime!”

When the citizens of Parowan Utah, decided they wanted people to stop, rather than drive through, on their way to Brian Head Resort, they began advertising that they had the “Best Cinnamon Rolls in the West.”

So many people came for the cinnamon rolls that two new businesses and a new bakery opened in the town of 2,986. Today the town stages cinnamon roll contests and a florist offers cinnamon roll bouquets.

Sun Valley with its world-class downhill skiing may be the attraction to get people here, Brown said. But Ketchum needs to provide plenty of activities to keep them here.

“The secret sauce is programming,” he said. “Think of downtown as your stage—the place to celebrate life.”

The average tourist is active 14 hours a day, he added. But they spend only four to six hours in the primary activity that drew them here, whether skiing or fly fishing.  That means they have eight to 10 hours to do complementary activities.

“That’s when 80 percent of non-lodging spending takes place,” he added. “My question to you: Are you getting that 80 percent?”

Brown noted that his group had studied more than 2,000 downtowns over a seven-year period to determine the 20 ingredients for an outstanding downtown. And Ketchum ranked among 400 of the most successful.

But there’s much room for improvement, he said as he showed signs he had taken during a walk-through that broadcast that businesses were open only by appointment or that the proprietor was on vacation.

“Beautiful streetscape are only half of it. Imagine downtown was Carnegie Hall. No matter how beautiful it is would you go if there was nothing happening on stage?”

In fact, he noted, Whistler’s village has become the main attraction with skiing something to do while people are there.

Some cities rotate foosball tables, ping pong tables and giant chess tables in and out of their squares, he said. Others offer free Zumba and Tai Chi classes on their squares. Invest in Jenga blocks for visitors to play with, he suggested. Stage a bridal fair there. Rotate wood carving and potter demonstrations in and out—those who meet artists are four times more likely to buy their products.

“Make it ever changing so people are thinking, ‘Let’s go downtown and see what’s going on,’ ” he said.

The European style of pedestrian areas is making inroads into America, as Americans want out of their cars, Brooks said.

“We built our culture around the automobile. Now, once we get to where we’re going, we want out of our cars. And this is where we’re going” he said, as he showed a picture of a pedestrian street sporting sidewalk cafes in Greece.

One of the reasons a third of America’s malls have closed their doors is that people want to go downtown—the top activities in the world are shopping, dining and entertainment in a pedestrian-friendly setting.

To wit, New York City closed a dozen blocks, turning taxi lanes into bike lanes. . Santa Monica’s pedestrian area three blocks from the pier has become one of the biggest attractions in southern California.

 Rapid City, S.D., turned a former parking lot into a plaza where it offers weekly movies on the square surrounded by food trucks and a splash pad that turns into an ice rink in winter. Within months Rapid City retailers doubled sales and the square now hosts more people per year than Mount Rushmore.

And condos in Whistler Village are outselling ski-in ski out accommodations. And both tourists and locals   prefer to sit outside under heat lamps in winter than inside.

 “We are truly getting back to a downtown where there’s a butcher, a baker and a candlestick maker. Authentic, local business, visual art, music artisans, eateries—these add up to a real connection.”

Here are some other considerations:

EXTEND EVENING HOURS:   Seventy percent of retail spending takes place after 6. Even Farmer’s Markets that have extended into the evening have increased sales exponentially.

 “Are you hearing this?!” said Brooks.

“The average dinner time has been pushed back to 7 or 7:30, yet I see a lot of restaurants here closing at 8. Get over it! Millennials and Generation Xers want to go where there’s life after 6, and we’re not talking the bar scene.”

Even Farmer’s Markets that have extended into the evening have increased sales exponentially.


The places that thrive most are those where retail businesses and restaurants are clustered together. There should be at least 10 places that sell food, including coffee shops or ice cream shops and 10 distinctive retail shops in a three-lineal block area. And at least 10 of those should be open after 6.

 And Whistler has located its service businesses like laundromats and H&R Block in a niche it calls “Function Junction.”

Clustering like shops can benefit those businesses, as well. Antique shops, for instance, sell 10 times more when clustered together and auto shops, 7 times more. And it doesn’t take a magnifying glass to see how popular food courts are.

MAKE THE HARD CHOICES TO GET ‘ER DONE: Start with the property owners, not the tenants, to reconfigure such clusters. Whistler, for instance, has located its service businesses like laundromats and H&R Block in a niche it calls “Function Junction.”

Brooks convinced Jackson, Wyo., to replace its laundromats with shops that would attract art galleries and now Jackson Hole is the fourth largest arts community in the United States.

“They’re a bigger draw that Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks combined, drawing 4 million visitors a year!” he said

Another example is the town of Sisters, Ore. After lining the street running through town with cute boutique shops and eateries, one in every 20 cars now stops to shop. Before, only one of every 1,100 motorists stopped.

“Sisters now has the highest per capita retail sales of any city in the state of Oregon,” he said.

If you don’t want to move real estate and other businesses out for the sake of vitality, at least move them upstairs and put boutique shops on the ground floor, Brooks added.

Oh, and when you sign lease agreements, negotiate hours to make sure those businesses stay open past 6 p.m.

THINK CURB APPEAL:  Seventy percent of sales start with curb appeal. Use blade signs perpendicular to the sidewalk to announce businesses. Paint those businesses in bright colors--not everything has to be beige colored. Put in benches.  And plant trees--trees in retail areas increase retail sales as much as 18 percent.

ENCOURAGE SIDEWALK CAFÉ DINING: Nelson, B.C., which gets way more rain than Sun Valley, sits platforms in its street to provide for outdoor dining during summer. They remove those platforms in winter for snow removal.

One of the ice cream shops there even offers free ice cream on occasion to customers provided they eat it outside the shop. And a line of ice cream lovers forms in no time.

GIVE DOWNTOWN AN IDENTITY: San Antonio’s downtown value as a destination skyrocketed after it was christened  The Riverwalk. Ditto for Oklahoma City’s Bricktown, Vancouver’s Gastown, Seattle’s Pioneer Square and Portland’s Pearl District.

EXPAND FREE PARKING: Two-hour parking restrictions are a good way to kill downtown and dramatically reduce spending and repeat visitors. The average customer wants four hours--don’t chase them away, Brooks said.

When you must have two-hour parking, affix signs to tell them where they can find four-hour or all-day parking. If you charge for parking, reinvest that money into the area where the revenue was generated.

And favor angle-in parking. It increases spending by more than 20 percent because it increases the number of parking spaces and it’s more user-friendly than parallel parking.

The idea that taking away parking will kill business is a myth not a reality, Brooks added.

“Are you telling me your business isn’t worth walking two blocks to?” he said.

The average shopper walks 200 feet from their parking space into WalMart and 400 feet to malls. And  they’ll walk three or four blocks to get to the tram to take them to Disneyland.

INVITE PEOPLE TO USE YOUR RESTROOM: Don’t ever say restrooms are just for customers. McDonald’s welcomes non-customers because it’s found that 70 percent of those who walk into their restaurants to use the restroom end up buying something.

“Put restrooms where people can spend money,” Brooks said. “Relieved people spend more.”

INVEST IN WAYFINDING SIGNS: They’re an investment, not a expense. Ketchum has some wayfinding signs but it needs more. And Sun Valley Village could use some, as well, Brooks said, recounting how he became lost trying to find out how to get to the Sun Valley Inn for his talk from the Limelight Hotel where he was staying.

WELCOME CONGESTION: Congestion is a downtown’s best friend. The narrower the street, the more pedestrian friendly it is.

THROW OUT STRATEGIC PLANS: Build, instead, an action plan outlining a to-do-list to get started.

Brown’s words seemed to resonate with those in the audience.

“I want Hailey to be a town that people drive to, instead of through,” said Hailey City council member Kaz Thea, whose own town is holding public workshops tonight and next week to gather input on where a town square should be located.

“I’m enthused by the number of people who have come up with ideas about what needs to be done in terms of such things as walkability,” added Ketchum Mayor Neil Bradshaw. “And I know we’re going to get a better agenda for the Town Square.”


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