A commercial stabilization effort requires the input and collaboration of a range of players. Ideally one or two lead organizations will manage the process and coordinate the other players.
The physical condition of a district sends important and subtle signals to people about what "kind" of place it is. The very same physical infrastructure makes some people comfortable and others uncomfortable. Paying attention to this can be a key to stabilization without gentrification. Broken sidewalks, streets that flood when it rains, dead street trees, and vandalized benches make most people feel bad about a neighborhood. But this kind of neglect seems to lead to even more vandalism, suggesting that there are some people who seek out physically neglected places. Improving this basic infrastructure will make families feel more comfortable and people who vandalize feel less comfortable. Designer cobblestone sidewalks and flashy street sculptures, in turn, make some working families uncomfortable, but may be just the thing to make upper-income shoppers feel at home.
This difference of "who is comfortable" is not just about class or income. Differences in age, race, culture, or even "taste" can influence who is comfortable where. Seniors and youth may be looking for different things. There is no one physical space that works for everyone-every district has to choose who it wants to attract. Well-managed commercial districts "position" themselves in this sense and use their capital improvement projects to build the kind of space where their target customers will feel comfortable spending time.
Regardless of the level of financial and organizational support, no community can simply decide what kind of commercial district they want. In the best of circumstances, there is a give and take between the community's articulated vision for the commercial district and "the market." A community group can decide that the neighborhood would benefit from a Laundromat in a particular location. They can approach Laundromat operators and let them know that there is an opportunity for a Laundromat in their neighborhood. In an extreme circumstance they could even start their own Laundromat. But if not enough residents go there and do their wash, the space will be vacant again before long.
Most people who live or work in lower-income communities are used to people writing neighborhoods off as bad places to do business. It is extremely common for managers of businesses, both large and small, to make decisions about where to locate their businesses based on crude and highly biased demographic profiles that overlook some of the very real economic opportunities in many neighborhoods. The challenge for commercial stabilization is to find the middle ground between accepting this kind of disinvestment and holding out for alternatives that are unrealistic.
In neighborhoods where redlining has been the rule for decades there is often a lot of room between these two extremes. Communities succeed by learning not to take "there is no market there" for an answer. They learn to respond by providing their own data to show that there is a market. Groups need to constantly adjust their vision in response to new barriers and new opportunities. This process of essentially negotiating with the market for the future of the community requires both patience and flexibility.
Community organizations that are developing neighborhood retail projects and/or coordinating commercial district stabilization efforts need experienced staff who understand the economics of commercial real estate and the unique needs of these neighborhoods. Organizations with more experienced staff can take greater risks with their commercial space, count on more commercial income from their projects, and lease to tenants who are more likely to contribute to neighborhood economic development goals.