Using Data to Make Good Decisions

Do you wish you could better use your district’s data to make informed decisions about investments, initiatives and priorities?  

Every business district has data available ranging from large chunks of information to smaller bits and pieces. A significant challenge for many districts is pulling together these multiple data points into a single, easy-to-understand and visually-compelling document.  

Announced in June of this year, PLACE Consulting's new GIS visual mapping tool is providing a simple solution to this long-standing problem.

Highly customizable to meet the specific needs of a district, the new mapping tool is already proving to be a valuable resource for organizations like the Andersonville Chamber of CommerceLincoln Square/Ravenswood Chamber of CommerceWest Loop Community Organization and Old Town Merchants & Residents Association. We are also using the mapping software as a project management tool tracking façade rebate applications and completed projects with the West Ridge SSA.

The map featured below illustrates at-a-glance the West Ridge SSA’s facade rebate program applications that are active, pending and complete. This information can be layered with additional customization to create a broader snapshot of district activity. Other data layers could include:  

  • building condition status
  • building vacancies
  • recent building permits
  • sidewalk cafe permits
  • development projects, proposals and opportunities
  • active business licenses
  • foreclosures
  • crime (points and heat map)
  • TIF district boundaries
  • ward boundaries
  • zoning
  • school attendance boundaries


GIS Map image_oct2017.png

Having current district data in a single easy-to-see document enables leaders like you to more easily identify trends, take advantage of new opportunities and develop impactful and innovative programming. The tool can be updated quickly and its user-friendly interface allows you to isolate specific data points, query and download reports as well as generate presentation-ready prints. 

The response to GIS mapping is exciting and has prompted PLACE Consulting to add a new team member, Tony Pelikan, to ensure that each of our clients has the opportunity to leverage this dynamic tool. To discuss how GIS mapping can support your decision-making, contact Jeremy Barndt at PLACE Consulting -

New Year’s Resolution Breakthroughs

Happy New Year from PLACE Consulting

As I reflect on what PLACE has accomplished in 2015, I am proud to say that our work helped 17 communities and organizations make improvements that will allow them to better meet the needs of their members, residents and customers. We spoke at the National Main Street conference in Atlanta, the International Downtown Association conference in San Francisco and the Virginia Community Capital’s (VCC) Learning Exchange in Richmond. We hosted networking events and seminars in Chicago, traveled to New York to learn best practices and create an exchange between peer institutions, and were pleased to be one of the mentor sites for LISC Chicago’s newly-launched Business District Leadership program.  

Especially memorable from 2015 was the opportunity in December that I had to be a panelist for VCC’s Learning Exchange, along with futurist Thomas Frey from the DaVinci Institute, and Basil Gooden the Director of the Virginia USDA. Basil spoke of the opportunities that rural America has to help solve the pressing problems of our day, such as clean energy development, trained workforces and affordable housing. My task was to talk about cities as “communities of the future,” a topic that’s easy for me because I believe that strong cities are the key to a safe, prosperous and healthy future for our country. One of the trends I highlighted included the changing nature of jobs as we move away from people working for one company to people being independent contractors and receiving income from a variety of sources. The growth of ventures such as AirBnB, Uber, Lyft and Rover demonstrate this trend.  The upside to these new jobs is that they connect people directly to one another and invite relationships to develop outside of the usual social boundaries. With AirBnB, for example, renters often stay in areas outside the downtown CBD, showing them what everyday life is like for people in their host communities, and allowing them to spend their tourist dollars in neighborhoods. (Have you tracked who is offering rooms in your community?) A challenge I spoke about is the difficulty we all have in adopting new technology, and the special challenges facing our municipalities in upgrading technology to increase efficiencies and effectiveness, as well as to be more transparent and citizen-friendly.

As I look to 2016, I’m reminded of Thomas Frey’s story about annual tech conferences. They often lack a watershed technological breakthrough or advancement, but they always showcase the many technological improvements from the previous version. For example, when the first smartphone was introduced, it had 5 sensors in it, and today, the average smartphone contains 21 sensors, a four-fold increase. That resonated with me as I thought about how we can all approach our work for this next year. We know that grandiose, sweeping New Year’s resolutions rarely succeed. But what if our resolutions were of the iterative kind, the way in which each version of the smartphone gets better? With that in mind, what small changes can you make in the way you manage your business district, your organization, your members, your Board, your staff, your boss, yourself? What improvements can you make, on the small scale, that if executed, would have big impacts in 12 months? I encourage you to make those kinds of resolutions this year, and track your progress. We’ll be doing the same here at PLACE – making small changes, like regular newsletters! – that hopefully have big impacts when 2016 comes to a close. We look forward to spending the year with you!

Detroit: A City Reclaiming Itself

Everyone is talking about Detroit – and the rebirth of the city that only a decade ago was dismissed as beyond repair.

I must confess that I’ve never been to Detroit, but I’ll be there at the end of June as PLACE sponsors the International Downtown Association’s Midwest conference. PLACE invests in IDA because it is an international association of BID managers and experts, and a trusted source of information and resources. And we couldn’t be more excited about personally experiencing the Detroit of today. We know that Detroit, like many cities, hooked its star to one industry, and when the American auto manufacturing sector began to decline, so, too, did Detroit. The ensuing white flight to suburbs and the population loss had a devastating effect on the city’s tax base, impacting basic city services such as water, fire, police and trash, and straining the city’s ability to provide a quality education, support its cultural institutions, ultimately resulting in Detroit declaring bankruptcy in July, 2013.

While I’ve never visited Detroit, I’m fascinated by the city’s history and the determination and grit of its residents and community leaders, and have loved reading about its resurgence. The Detroit of today boasts new talent, loyal and committed residents and leaders who stayed and fought for the Detroit they knew could be reclaimed, and an influx of investment and capital. The story of Detroit’s successful emergence from bankruptcy is one of compromise, cooperation and collaboration, words that don’t often get used when talking about elected officials, business leaders, unions, community activists and foundations. Detroit has also used big data in a new and powerful way to understand its current situation and where and how to prioritize limited resources; check out Motor City Mapping. The use of the data was the basis for the watershed report issued by the Detroit Blight Elimination Task Force. A new Business Improvement District in the heart of Detroit’s Downtown also deserves credit. The Downtown Detroit Business Improvement Zone, or BIZ, is overseen by the Downtown Detroit Partnership. Established in April, 2014, it encompasses 140 city blocks in a 1.1 square mile that stretches between three major highways and the Detroit River. The 573 commercial properties in the BIZ contribute an aggregated $4M annually to fund programs and services that keep downtown clean, green and safe.

I hope we’ll see some of you there next month as we learn first-hand about Detroit’s spirit, tenaciousness and promising future. Some of the featured speakers include Dan Carmody, President of the Eastern Market  and Rip Ripson, President and CEO of the Kresge Foundation. I have a feeling we could all learn a thing or two from the city that people once wrote off. It still has a long way to go, to be sure, but I wouldn’t bet against Detroit. No way. 

Make No Little Plans – and, don’t put them on a shelf!

Ever wonder what happens after a planning process concludes? If you’re in Chicago, you’ll now be able to see the results of a nearly year-long research project in which community and issue-area plans dating from 2000 to the present were integrated with existing assets, demographic information and accomplishments related to the plans. PLACE is proud to have been one of the project partners, hired by the Metropolitan Planning Council to review and summarize the community-based plans and reach out to the communities for their input and feedback on accomplishments and future priorities. This watershed activity signals great commitment to not only planning in the Chicago area, but to translating those efforts and recommendations into real results.

As Michael Davidson, Senior Program Officer in Sustainable Development at The Chicago Community Trust, who spearheaded this project said, “Our goal as a working committee was to create a citywide planning framework to guide investments in the built environment. I think we’ve done that. If put into practice, the framework would mean every neighborhood stands to benefit from long-range thinking. As we all know, there are sections of the city for which few plans have been completed.  In these areas, it can be more difficult to make thoughtful decisions about the type of development that should occur and where, set priorities and timelines for that development, secure resources to pay for it, and garner community support for it.  I am hopeful that the Chicago Neighborhoods 2015 planning framework can catalyze progress in these areas.”

The Chicago Neighborhoods 2015 materials can be found here:

There will be mistakes and omissions. A project of this size, with the limited budget it had, is bound to have errors. Hopefully, this project is the beginning of a new era in planning in the City of Chicago, and anticipated future versions of this work will address any mistakes and continue to reflect the many accomplishments that community groups, chambers of commerce and dedicated citizens are making throughout Chicago every day of every year.

We want to give special thanks and acknowledgement to the project partners. First, a personal thank you to Marisa Novara at Metropolitan Planning Council, for being the best project partner ever! LISC Chicago and Teska Associates did a yeoman’s job of bringing together stakeholders from each of the 16 city areas to discuss and map assets. Hats off to Patrick Barry, writer extraordinaire, for pulling together the asset maps and current community information in a way that makes for easy reading. The Institute for Housing Studies at DePaul University was charged with collecting data that will, hopefully, be used in the future by the City of Chicago when creating area guides that assist the Dept. of Planning and Development in making effective and impactful investment and development decisions moving forward. Finally, thank you to the City of Chicago’s Dept. of Planning and Development and Deputy Commissioner Brad McConnell, for his commitment to seeing this project to completion, and to Mike Davidson and The Chicago Community Trust, for believing in and funding this worthwhile and important endeavor. 

Who’s Afraid of a Little Cold Weather?

I was in New York City on a family trip last weekend and visited Bryant Park. I first came to know Bryant Park at the International Downtown Association’s annual conference in 2013, and I fell in love with it. It is one of my favorite public spaces of all time. Given the frozen temperatures of January, I thought that I would be showing off a mostly-closed and deserted park, with explanations like, “Over there, where the empty patch of ground is, that’s where they have live music concerts in the summer.” Imagine my surprise and delight when we got there and were greeted by a rink for free ice skating, a two-story temporary café with top-notch food and spirits, and upbeat music, in addition to several open concessions featuring hot chocolate, chimney cakes and other goodies for a cold day. The park was, of course, packed. There were young, old, accomplished skaters and newbies, families, teens and more. Did I mention that it was only 18 degrees out?

I was amazed at the winter programming. While many parks offer fine programming in the warmer months, they close shop when the thermometer drops. Not Bryant Park. In fact, on some of their 15 foot tall posters, they proudly stated, “Above 40th, below 32°.” (Bryant Park is located between 40th and 42nd streets.) That got me thinking about other cities and how they program for cold weather. Here are a few examples: St. Paul, Minnesota’s Winter Festival; Montreal’s Light Festival; Madison, Wisconsin’s Winterfest; Quebec City’s Winter Carnival; Ottawa’s Interlude Festival; and, Montreal’s Igloo Festival.

I know there are a few examples of outdoor winter festivals or activities in Chicago, such as Loyola University Chicago’s December Polar Palooza, Northalsted Business Alliance’s February week-long Frost Fest, and the Chicago Park District’s December through February Polar Adventure Days. There could be more. Generally speaking, our dance card is full in the summer; add events in off-months and you’re likely to find an enthusiastic group of people who will show up and join in the fun!

Bryant Park is full of lessons for those of us interested in creating memorable, fun and safe urban spaces. I encourage you to visit, if you have the chance. You’ll see a park that went from being a drug haven and symbol of New York City’s decline in the 1970s to the most densely occupied urban park in the world. It’s funding comes entirely from a Business Improvement District, fees from concessions and sponsorships. It doesn’t accept one dime of public funding. And you’ll for yourself see why it remains one of my favorite public spaces of all time. 

Asking Powerful Questions Gets Powerful Results

I recently had the good fortune to attend an organizational retreat for a client where I was wrapping up my Interim CEO work. We chose a facilitator that would help them build on what I had done in terms of new policies, procedures, best practices and shifts in culture and structure. We also needed someone who would help them capitalize on the talents and vision of their new executive director. We got all that, and more.

We were encouraged to ask powerful questions. According to Vicki Raymont, our facilitator, powerful questions are led by ‘what’ or ‘how,’ not ‘why’ or ‘when.’ When you ask a ‘what’ or ‘how’ question, you invite the respondent to actively engage in thinking about the problem in a way that leads to a solution. For example, instead of asking, “Why is this report late?” you could ask, “What processes do we need in place to make sure that reports are submitted on time?”

I encourage you to ask powerful questions that lead to innovation, change and engagement. Have those crucial conversations in order to better understand the views, perspectives and motivations of those around you. With these new skills you’ll be a better and more effective leader and you’ll enjoy greater success in the important community-building work you’re doing. And who doesn’t want that?

*Note: Thanks to Vicki Raymont of Strategic Solutions Group for providing this guidance. Her website is chock full of information and insight. Check it out! 

Investing in Yourself = Great ROI for Your Community

When was the last time you invested in yourself, professionally? We at PLACE are just back from a phenomenal conference in Ottawa, Canada for the 60th Annual International Downtown Association conference, and we couldn’t be more pleased with the value we got from attending sessions, meeting practitioners from around the world and encouraging attendees to be mindful of placemaking through our engaging PLACE game at our booth.

More than 600 people attended the conference, most from North America, but also including representation from South Africa, the United Kingdom and the Bahamas. We were treated to a mix of “Master Talks,” mobile workshops, tours, presentations and networking over cocktails in unique settings, and the second day breakfast sessions featured a First Nation storyteller and a mini-outdoor market that featured maple syrup and other delicious concoctions.

What I most appreciate about the annual IDA conference is people’s willingness to engage and learn from one another. Many attendees this year were new to IDA and were eager to meet folks from other parts of the world and exchange best practices and information.

I had the opportunity to meet some of the people behind the revitalization and rebuilding of downtown Detroit, like Dan Carmody, President, Eastern Market Corporation, who spoke passionately about the need for fresh, locally sourced produce and how that runs counter to grocery and food conglomerates. I spent time with Eric Jones from the Downtown Detroit Partnership, which recently renewed and expanded their BID successfully, and Jason Zogg, of DTE Energy, one of the partners in the city’s rebirth.

I was inspired by Dan Biederman, CEO of Biederman Redevelopment Ventures in New York City, and co-founder of the Bryant Park Corporation and 34th Street Partnership, as he gave his "Master Talk" and challenged us to spend our dollars on quality programming in new spaces rather than expensive infrastructure or cost-prohibitive attractions. Prema Katari Gupta, the Director of Planning and Economic Development at University City District in West Philadelphia, was the perfect person to provide specifics on how to do that as she enumerated the many ways in which her organization used data collection to fine tune their programming and services in an area called The Porch.

Mark your calendars for next year’s conference in San Francisco, September 30 - October 2, 2015. Invest in yourself and in your community by making plans now to be there. You and your district are worth it. 

Relax, Reset and Renew

I’ve just returned from our family’s annual trip to Guatemala, a trip we made initially to honor my daughter’s heritage and that we now make to catch up with friends and revisit favorite places. It was a good trip – not because everything went smoothly (in fact, lots of things didn’t) - but because we were able to take time away from the busy-ness of our lives and reconnect with each other and the lives of those around us. As we were traveling home, I reflected on what makes travel so important to me and I came up with my own personal 3 R’s:  Relax, Reset, and Renew.

Relaxation can take many forms, both passive and active. Reading a book while lying in a hammock can be relaxing, as can taking a hike or catching a live show. For me, relaxation is about taking it easy and not having too many time commitments, or trying to cram too much into one day. I don’t get enough time to be spontaneous; when I travel, I like to be open to the serendipity of what happens, even when it’s not exactly what I would like!

Resetting for me is about resetting my perspective. I am the center of my universe, and travel pulls me out of that orbit for a time (probably not long enough for those I’m closest to!). I am reminded of how people live and work so differently from me – seeing lives tied to the water or to the earth provides a balance to my way of life, which is tied to technology much of the time. I am also reminded to be grateful for what I have. I have access to many more resources and opportunities than do many others in the world, and travel helps me not take that for granted.

Renewal is what I ultimately seek- feeling refreshed and able to come back to this work that I love so much with new creativity, ideas and energy. 

I hope this summer has offered you the opportunity for meaningful and enjoyable travel. If you haven’t had a chance to get away, try using the 3 R’s as a way to relax, reset and renew wherever you are. By taking a few minutes to shift your perspective, a new way to solve problems or overcome obstacles can present itself and lead to new inspiration for the work ahead.

I look forward to connecting with many of you on Wednesday September 3, as we travel to Ottawa, CA for the 60th Annual International Downtown Association’s annual conference. Come find us at Booth #202 and play our PLACE game, where we will challenge you to identify places from all over the world.  You’ll be able to virtually travel and take advantage of the 3 R’s for at least a few minutes during an exciting and valuable conference. Of course, there will be prizes and chocolate involved! 

Nature as an Economic Engine

Summer is a time when many of us try to spend more time outdoors, in nature. It’s also a time when we spend more money on outdoor activities, generating an important seasonal economy. A new June, 2014 report issued by Illinois Governor Pat Quinn highlights the impact that outdoor recreation can have on a local economy.  The report calls attention to an area on the south side of Chicago that stretches into Indiana and contains an interesting combination of industry and natural features; the area is called the Millennium Reserve. Quinn’s report embraces these conflicting uses and recommends investments to improve industrial facilities while, at the same time, calling for more of the natural areas to be opened up for public access and use. Specifically, the report, Millennium Reserve: Opportunities for Action, states that, “Americans spent more than $145 billion dollars in 2011 on outdoor recreation, including bird watching, hiking and fishing.” The guiding principles of the plan focus on combining economic growth with healthy ecosystems while creating jobs and honoring the region’s history.   

This spring, I had the opportunity to participate in a tour and panel on a similar topic. I was invited to be a resource by the RACER Trust (Revitalizing Auto Communities Environmental Response Trust), at a summit focusing on reuse of a former GM property in Elyria, OH. The RACER Trust's mission is to remediate and position for redevelopment 89 former GM locations. After touring the property on foot and by car, we met for a facilitated discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of the property and brainstormed about realistic re-uses for the property. The property will most likely be redeveloped into a mix of open space and warehouses; however, several of us participating remarked that the natural aspects of the property could themselves be a draw if strong transit and retail/service connections could be made.

As I reflect on the Millennium Reserve report and the RACER Trust panel, I see the group of champions of natural settings starting to evolve. No longer is the environmentalist, naturalist, or landscape planner alone in embracing the value of these spaces; it is not uncommon now for politicians, such as Governor Quinn, business leaders, and economic development leaders to also realize the opportunity that exists by incorporating natural features into developments or allowing them to be a key element of a revitalization strategy. Natural areas have long been viewed as development opportunities. Now, nature itself is the opportunity.  Nature has taken a back seat to the needs of industry for a very long time. It’s good to see nature getting top billing these days as a way to revive industry and secure the health and well-being of our cities and residents for many years to come.

What natural assets do you have to protect and promote? How can you use those assets to further develop a healthy community?

The Transformational Power of the Arts in Community Revitalization

Have you ever wondered how to turn a weakness in your community into something positive? Well-known examples include the Rails to Trails program, resulting in exceptional projects like the Highline in NYC, adaptive reuse of abandoned buildings and creating recreational facilities on former brownsfield.  Even in the absence of those particular kinds of opportunities, neighborhoods can also benefit greatly by harnessing the creative power and energy of artists to turn deficits into assets. Artists have often been the urban pioneers that lead to the resurgence of an area. Now, cities and neighborhoods are taking engagement of the arts community even further by actively involving them in developing improvement strategies.

I got the opportunity to see one example of this kind of transformation first-hand on a spring trip to Miami, FL when I toured the Wynwood Arts District. It’s located in a warehouse district that once was filled with empty buildings and has now been slowly turned into one of the world’s largest open-air street-art installations. The area is home to more than 70 art galleries, retail and antique shops and bars, restaurants and cafes. Murals of all different themes, colors and styles delight visitors at every turn, resulting in a desire to continue around “just one more corner” and rewarding those who do. The neighborhood’s vibe is laid-back and friendly, and it is a popular place for guided and impromptu tours in addition to numerous publicized events. You can see some photos on our Pinterest page here:

The change in Wynwood is not without some controversy; there are concerns that low-income residents have been pushed out as the area improves, leading to an important question: how do we improve communities for the people that live there now, rather than those who may come in the future? One way to help ensure that the artists themselves aren’t forced to leave is to pay a fair price for their work. Other approaches include ramping up efforts to build or renovate long-term affordable housing and investing in local schools to strengthen education opportunities.

Let us know what you’re doing in your communities and neighborhoods to engage artists in your revitalization efforts and how you’re staving off the negative aspects of gentrification that often force long-term residents to relocate because the neighborhood is no longer affordable. We’d love to highlight your great work in our next blog!

If you’re in the Chicago area and want to try this kind of transformation on a smaller scale, check out Metropolitan Planning Council’s placemaking challenge, “Old Places, New Tricks.” They are challenging organizations to activate a public space in the community for one day – August 15, 16 or 17. Click here for more info!

Special Service Areas – New York Style

A PLACE colleague of mine, Jill Siegel, and I recently had the opportunity to travel to New York to learn about the differences between New York City’s Business Improvement Districts and Chicago’s Special Service Areas, both of which are forms of special taxing districts. After an early morning flight into the Big Apple, we met up with fellow IDA fall conference attendee Lauren Collins, who oversees two BIDs in Brooklyn, Church Avenue and Flatbush. Lauren took us on a walking tour of the districts, which abut each other, and we learned about typical BID programs for tenant retention and attraction and district cleanliness, beautification and safety. We caught the bus to our hotel and after a quick drop off of bags, we headed out for lunch in Park Slope.

We stumbled on s’Nice Cafe, a neighborhood cafe sure to make your vegan heart melt. After a brisk walk around Prospect Park, we met up with the outgoing Executive Director of the Myrtle Avenue Partnership, and the Co-chair of the New York City BID Association, Blaise Backer.(Blaise will become the Deputy Commissioner of the Neighborhood Development Division of New York City's Small Business Services on May 5, 2014.) Currently, Chicago doesn't have an SSA Association, but there is strong interest among the 52 SSAs in finding better ways to collaborate and support one another.

That evening, Jill and I attended a Steering Committee meeting of a district that is currently being created on 7th Avenue in Brooklyn. We were hosted by the James Dean Ellis of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, which is sponsoring the creation of the district. It was an honor to be present while business and property owners talked about the right boundaries, programs and services and budget for the district’s needs. They also took ownership for conducting outreach, obtaining support signatures and formally agreeing to fulfill the responsibilities of a steering committee member through a signed document.

The next morning, Jill and I joined more than 100 other Brooklynites at the Brooklyn Borough Hall to hear Eric Adams, President of the Borough of Brooklyn, and Carlo Scissura, the CEO of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, speak about how the borough and chamber can help Brooklyn’s small businesses. In attendance were economic development and chamber professionals as well as small business owners and developers. Many of their concerns were similar to what we hear in Chicago: too much red tape from City Hall, a tough economy, and concerns about rising costs of doing business in the city. I was impressed to learn that the Brooklyn Chamber has 1600 members.

Before catching our flight home, we met with Kris Goddard, the Executive Director of the Neighborhood Development Division, Small Business Services, New York City. Kris was a wealth of information in explaining to us how BIDs are created in New York. Generally speaking, residential property is excluded when at all possible, and if it’s included, it’s taxed at $1/year. For those in Chicago who work with SSAs with substantial residential property, the ability to exclude residents or reduce their tax burden would be a welcome option. BIDs in New York often take a couple of years to create and the City provides some financial and technical assistance to groups that are interested. That’s unlike Chicago, where the financial burden is solely on the shoulders of the sponsoring organization. The other fascinating difference between Chicago and New York is that New York essentially guarantees the BIDs that they will receive full funding, regardless of what’s actually collected. Not so in Chicago, where the city is merely a pass-through of what’s collected by the county. When property owners are late or delinquent in paying their tax bills, the effect on SSA budgets can be severe.

Stay tuned for my next blog where I write about my recent trip to Miami, FL and the Wynwood Arts District. Follow PLACE on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest for news and pictures of our work, travels and adventures in neighborhood revitalization.