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Be distinctive, says national speaker

It was a Confederate printing plant in 1864. Today it's a Publix in downtown Columbia.

Publix downtown Columbia
The Confederate Printing Plant in Columbia was built in 1864 to print
Confederate bonds, but today it houses residential units and a Publix grocery store.

And that's a good thing. Ed McMahon urged Annual Meeting attendees to recognize the placemaking value of the busy grocery store in Columbia's Vista district and other reinventions of historic structures during his address to more than 600 municipal officials and guests.

"These are the places that physically connect us to the past. These are the places that tell us who we are and where we come from," said McMahon, a senior resident fellow for the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C., and the board chairman of the National Main Street Center. "Saving historic buildings in South Carolina is about saving the heart and soul of South Carolina. But it is also incredibly important to your economic wellbeing."

He described other examples of cities that helped give new life to historic structures — Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin, restored an old firehouse, and the tenant, Firehouse Pizza, saw its business increase. In Boston, an old warehouse on the waterfront was turned into the Converse shoe company's world headquarters.

McMahon cited a real estate trends report by PwC and the Urban Land Institute that found restored industrial buildings are commanding higher rents than new Class A office spaces. The report quoted a life insurance company executive who said, "These are exciting times for acquiring older industrials with this potential. Such buildings are not being replaced, so there is a scarcity."

With South Carolina's rich past, historic buildings are a resource to be tapped.

The demand for repurposed historic structures has to do with the public's quest for authenticity and distinct character in their surroundings, particularly among younger residents.

"Let's talk about hospitality," McMahon said. "When young people talk about staying in hotels, they say that 'authenticity' and 'interesting' is more important than 'comfortable' and 'predictable.'"

He said major hotel corporations are opening off-brand hotels, such as Hotel Indigo properties, which along with Holiday Inn, are part of IHG.

And just as hotel companies are adding boutique properties, cities and towns should also look to celebrate their individuality. In short, municipalities can make themselves competitive by accentuating their uniqueness instead of imitating other thriving places.

The Alabama native kept attendees' attention with his personable and frank delivery of examples of good and bad economic development strategies and practical ideas to draw residents, visitors and employers to a city.

These were among McMahon's points:

  • Don't compete with other cities in a race to the bottom by giving large property tax abatements to big business.

    "What we're really doing is pitting one community against another. We are moving economic development around," he said. "If somebody threatens to leave, then we'll pay them whatever they want until they get a better deal from somebody else. Taxpayers are spending billions of dollars subsidizing big business."

    Look at doing things differently, McMahon said, and realize that small businesses are the ones creating the bulk of new jobs. "Maybe you might invest in creating a great place and creating a skilled work force, which, of course, will create a lasting asset that will pay dividends far into the future. You will help existing businesses create a diverse, durable local economy." 
  • "It's not about what you don't have," he said. "It's about what you do have." Quality of life is directly tied to a city's economic wellbeing. Don't join an "arms race" that only a few cities will actually win. For example, resist the urge to build the flashiest convention center, the biggest festival market place or some other trendy attraction, such as an aquarium.
  • Green spaces are more than a nice extra. Treat parks and green spaces like the sources of vitality that they are. Green spaces add value to adjacent property. A multitude of studies back this up.
  • Let demographic trends help inform decisions about the housing supply. McMahon said there is more single-family housing than needed to meet demand and not enough housing suitable for empty-nesters who have downsized, young people who postpone marriage and other growing groups.
  • Preserving what is special about a community is good for business. McMahon pointed to a company called Brandywine Investment Fund. Its founder moved the company from Philadelphia to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to take advantage of the outdoor recreation opportunities in Wyoming. The lesson: Protecting an area's natural environment raises the quality of life and makes people — including employers — want to settle down there and even uproot from somewhere else. Increasingly, young people, he said, now decide where they want to live, move there and then look for a job. That's a reversal from past generations, when a job offer determined where someone moved.
  • It's good to be discerning when it comes to deciding what businesses you want in your city. Don't be afraid to say no. "If you're afraid to say no to anything, you'll get the worst of everything," said McMahon. "Communities that set high standards compete for the top." As McMahon put it: Go for a "laser" recruitment strategy, not a "shotgun" one.
  • Mixed-use developments offer an array of advantages. Apartments, offices, and any number of other establishments can be located on top of a downtown Walmart or Best Buy, for example. McMahon cited 2011 data from Fayetteville, Arkansas, that showed a mixed-use Waffle House outperformed a standalone Waffle House by 15 percent. The rise of e-commerce and the decline of suburban shopping malls should continue to factor into city planning.
  • Beware of sameness. "If you can't differentiate your community from any place else you have no competitive advantage."
  • Companies are moving back to downtowns. "If you don't have a healthy downtown, you simply don't have a healthy town. The apple rots from the inside out," he said. "It's hard to be a suburb of nothing. … Investing in the downtown is about investing in the whole place."