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Bringing corporate leadership to city planning 


By Ilana Preuss, CEO of Recast City


The time is now for companies to take an active role in the future of downtowns – for the sake of their employees, their bottom line, and brand allegiance. With empty storefronts lining the streets of city blocks all across the country, it is time for corporations to jump in to lead and join existing efforts to reverse this troubling trend. When we have an overwhelming number of vacant storefronts and empty office buildings as is happening now, it creates a complete shift in the economics of these downtowns. 


Some executives wonder why this should matter to them, especially if their core competencies involve customers located elsewhere. Thinking like this misses the point. When any company headquarters or offices are located in a city that has been depleted of investment, people and well-needed optimistic neighborhood energy, it has an impact on employees, vendors and clients that cannot be understated.  


Here’s What We Know. 

Over half of office employees in major cities are consistently working from home, and according to Pew Research, nationally, 65% percent of employees are either full-time in the office or working a hybrid model of remote and on-site. National chains are shrinking the size of their stores and closing locations outside of top prime locations. The cost of commercial space is still high, even as it sits empty, because property owners do not want to take a loss on the space and lower the market value of the property. 

All of this growing emptiness in towns means emptiness in our lives too because people, our employees, still crave being around others. When we feel included, and have places to gather with each other, we feel more tied to a place or a business. But now, we need a reason to show up. We need experiences and something that adds to our quality of life. Something that makes the commute worth the effort. That’s why reinvesting in our downtowns has become so essential. City officials, community leaders, and real estate developers must have the participation of companies who are based there to be effective in moving these downtowns forward. Goals must be aligned on who the revitalization will serve and the ways the spaces can be used to maximize opportunities for everyone. 

Why It Will Matter to HR

A key factor for corporations when it comes to attracting new talent or requesting current employees to relocate is what the town has to offer outside of work. So in addition to competitive salaries and benefits, organizations are also faced with being competitive in the town appeal of the office location. Smaller companies that provide employees with the surroundings of unique neighborhoods and destinations will often win out over national chains with big benefits that are located in places with significant vacancies. The need to rethink our downtowns because they are an essential baseline requirement that is part of employee attraction and retention. In a climate of “quiet quitting” and “quiet firing,” having a motivating environment where your office is located could be a vital incentive for your workforce. 

Why It Will Matter to Marketing 

When companies become part of an innovative and inclusive city revitalization, not only will that give the city a fresh story, but it will give their brand one too. Many companies have corporate responsibility programs but often they are supporting the greater good and don’t have touchpoints that employees or customers can directly experience. This will. City redevelopment projects can be seen, enjoyed, experienced, and appreciated. Not only will it enhance the company’s ability to attract top talent but having an initiative executives can actually “point to” turns a marketing idea into a promotable reality.  It also has the potential to become part of the brand promise with a clear delivery of that promise.

How To Begin Community Partnerships

The first step is to recognize the need for corporate leadership involvement in rebuilding the local downtown by engaging in local conversations, investing in projects that make a difference, and bringing creativity to the forefront. Leaders who engage with their local elected officials about a vision for the area will make an impact. Bring your creative genius to the question of how the downtown could be used differently by bringing in small-scale manufacturers who can occupy the space to produce their products and sell to walk-by customers. By helping these types of businesses (hardware, handbags & hot sauce) corporations are creating an environment that supports small business growth for local entrepreneurs.

Bringing a corporate voice and action to real estate developers, landlords and local officials could influence change in policies that will make shared kitchens and shared retail spaces easier to implement for start-ups to start and for community groups to gather. If a company controls some storefront property in a strategic move – why keep it empty! Instead, activating ground floor space that is in a company’s control can be used to create popup programs, space for micro-retail businesses, and community events. Work with small business organizations, local CDFIs, Black and brown business owner coalitions to generate more opportunity so more people have the chance to build wealth in the community.

The time is now for corporations to recognize their important role to help lead the change to bring back our downtowns. To turn things around in a productive and meaningful way, it will “take a village” plus the C-suite to revitalize cities to create vibrant economies and renewed neighborhoods to become great places once again to live, work, and visit!

About Author:

Ilana Preuss is founder and CEO of Recast City, a nationally recognized consulting firm and the developers of Recast Leaders, a cohort program bringing together corporations, city and community leaders, real estate developers and small business groups to revitalize downtowns turning them into vibrant economies.

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