How Clusters Can Create a Sense of Place

Have you defined your city’s sense of place? Sense of place is defined as: Either the intrinsic character of a place, or the meaning people give to it, but, more often, a mixture of both. For Sharon McCormick, RMA’s Director of Business Attraction and Marketing, this is a critical step in the redevelopment process. Understanding who you are, how people feel about you and knowing what you already have is imperative when reinventing your city.

“When we partner with a city, one of the first things we do is evaluate what is there,” said McCormick. “Our Economic Development teams’ research provides us with the reality and the potential.”

One of the factors that McCormick seeks in the research studies are “clusters”—groupings of similar businesses or services in an area.  Examples of clusters can be restaurants, breweries, various types of retail, arts and cultural venues, financial businesses, tech startups, marine related operations and more.

“Sometimes it is obvious and other times it is not,” she said. “In one city we worked with, I noticed a few culinary related businesses. They were sprinkled throughout the community, but after reviewing and analyzing the business tax receipts I found there was an authentic base, or enough of a existing cluster,  to expand on that and create a Culinary Arts District. We defined the area, set the aspiration in play and then went about attracting more culinary businesses.” This successful approach resulted in 8 properties valued at nearly $15 million changing hands within the first 2 years of the Culinary Arts District being established.

One client city really offered no core clusters, however, McCormick and her team analyzed the underlying environment and determined that it would support the arts and could become a bohemian, creative district. A strategic marketing plan was drafted that outlined a comprehensive targeted approach including branding to address the current perception and image of the area, the condition of buildings, the existing merchandise mix and the opportunity gap analysis, parking, and increasing the customer base through campaigns, wayfinding signage and special events. In a short space of time, a blighted community with no art galleries transformed into a thriving area with 10 art galleries, 8 resident artists, 20 one-of-a-kind restaurants each with their own creative culinary experiences, and a myriad of unique artsy and eclectic shops – all helping to transform the area into a trendy, edgy hot spot with a dynamic future.

Another project brings McCormick to a city that has seven distinct activity centers where she and her team are analyzing and defining the best types of businesses to add to each area. “Each area is uniquely positioned to draw a particular demographic and customer profile. Business attraction efforts will be focused on clustering businesses to draw that target market,” she added.

“Each city is different and that brings both the excitement and challenges for each project,” she said. “However, the goal is always the same: to create “the place” — uncover the character, capitalize on the elements and develop and promote the brand that let’s everyone know you’ve arrived.”