With all of the budget cuts and challenges facing Colorado’s business district leaders Downtown Colorado, Inc. (DCI) is receiving more inquires than ever before on how to access increased resources to support business attraction, business retention, and enhanced economic development in business districts. These are challenging times, and everyone is looking to provide at least a little more support to the small businesses that prop up our economy. However, EVERYONE is looking for additional support from the statewide service providers, state agencies, and state and nationals foundations. So where is the one place you can look for resources that all the other district leaders aren’t already contacting? The simple answer is locally.
Colorado’s business district leadership, whether they be private small business owners or association leaders, or the public sector local government staff and officials aiming to support them will have much more success if they start the search for resources by assessing the partnerships, funding, and human resources available in their own community. This search starts with stakeholders and objective setting.
What is a Stakeholder?
A stakeholder is an individual or group seeking to gain financially or intrinsically from the positive outcome of a project.  Commercial districts are strategically placed to touch upon the interests of most stakeholders in a community and the region. As the traditional core of a neighborhood or community, commercial districts are a place for gathering and finding out news, so what better place to support when you are trying to develop a group to support the well-being of the community? In smaller towns, the district, or Main Street, is also the area that traditionally drives the local sales tax generation, and houses public offices. This means that there is a wide range of stakeholders to contact when conducting resource identification.
Why Engage Stakeholders?
While we all love those rugged and fiercely independent roots that brought us to Colorado, the economy and environment have always been safer when you travel in groups. Some businesses have success going it alone, but more and more do not. Identifying partnerships allows districts and local governments to better assess the resources of all the groups working toward common goals. More importantly, it assists to activate these resources to contribute to the larger goals of the neighborhood or town.
There are many examples of the benefits of stakeholder partnerships. In an urban neighborhood this might be connecting small businesses to the neighborhood associations which surround them to identify discounted advertising and co-marketing opportunities or volunteers to do customer surveys. In a smaller community, this might mean working with Rotary to connect the scholarships they provide to a formalized process of encouraging local students to study strategically identified professions, such as doctors to replace local professionals who might retire in the next 10 years.
Another key component to stakeholder goal-setting is to assess the resources that are being wasted on duplication. If numerous groups are working toward the same objective using different pots of money, each group will accomplish more by combining objectives and developing a strategic plan for delegating responsibilities to each group. Essentially, this frees up money so that instead of accomplishing Objective A two times, some of the money can be dedicated to Objective B.
One last example of the need for engaging stakeholders is to build communication. Most commercial districts and local governments have communication gaps that frustrate all of the local groups. For businesses, it often creates a feeling of not being heard, a sense of helplessness, and irritation with local government. For local government, there is a sense of spinning wheels: creating programs that no one utilizes, holding meetings and creating committees that no one joins leads to a general sense of apathy from the local businesses and citizens. Effective communication can truly assist in bridging these gaps and increasing the impact of the efforts of all groups.
Who Should You Consider as a Stakeholder?
The first stakeholder to identify is you, or rather your own group. Everyone wants a vibrant district with happy businesses and property owners, but too many of the dedicated and enthusiastic leaders we work with fail to understand their own objectives before beginning an initiative. It is important to take the time to understand what success will look like for you so that you can communicate those impacts to the groups that you will partner with.
Once you have an understanding of what your objectives are, it is time to make a list of potential partners and begin determining who else is working on similar or complimentary goals. When working with community groups and local governments, one of the most common mistakes we see is communities limiting success by limiting partnerships. If you are focusing on the vibrancy of a small commercial district, don’t sell your district short! Not only the businesses or surrounding residents of that district are potential partners. The local governments, libraries, museums, schools, rotary, churches, all non-profit groups, seniors, historical societies, and more should be added to the list. Use this list to do an initial inventory of each group and how they intersect, or should interact, with your district. What is their mission? Why would they care what happens in your district? How important could they be to the objectives you have set? Note: Don’t forget to consider the human resources they might bring to the table through volunteers or skills that are required.
Once those questions are answered it is possible to prioritize the list of potential stakeholders. It is important to understand the primary folks to include in planning and to contact them strategically. Develop messages of inclusion and potential partners for each group that reflect your objectives and their interests. This should be considered as an invitation to something wonderful, not a hostile take over! Once you have all the groups at the table, discuss what each group’s goals may be and how all groups can contribute to common objectives.
Stakeholder engagement begins with the assumption that local groups, whether residents, businesses, non-profits, or special district staff are invested in the neighborhood or district. The challenging times we now face begs local leaders to articulate a shared sense of the value and to identify what brings its core stakeholders together. It also pushes leaders to clarify a structure for partnerships, communications, and community goal setting for the good of all stakeholders and the sustainability of the qualities that brought folks to the community.