Every city, neighborhood and street has its own story. Unfortunately, some of those tales are of suburbs that drew away residents, large manufacturers that abandoned the area, increases in crime and decreases in investment. To keep those stories from ending tragically, communities are enlisting the help of private partners and residents to collaborate on physical improvements and events that help forge identities, attract businesses and bring vitality back to the neighborhoods.

San Francisco, Indianapolis and Milwaukee each have identified districts that could use some special attention and are working with residents and businesses to redevelop the neighborhoods. The projects have started small, but they have made a significant difference in the selected districts. "If you look at any major city, you don't get much bang for your buck if you focus on too big of an area," says Keith Stanley, Milwaukee South of Highland (SOHI) district manager. "But when you focus on a specific area or street and create a plan, it works better."

Attracting business

New York-based Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) is one organization that is facilitating relationships between communities in need and businesses looking for opportunities. LISC selects districts that show promise for revitalization, often in lower-income neighborhoods. Then, non-profit groups develop action plans for the districts and are responsible for implementing them. To help accomplish their plans, the districts receive $70,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds annually for three years, as well as $70,000 in technical assistance from LISC. The districts must raise at least $10,000 each year on their own. Using funding pooled from cities and other donors, ranging from individuals to corporations, LISC typically pays for a staff member for each non-profit group and technical assistance, and distributes donated services, such as architectural or business consulting.

One of the key goals for the districts is attracting new businesses. "As people moved away from the city, so did the retail businesses, which is typical of many cities," says Maury Plambeck, director of the Indianapolis Department of Metropolitan Development. "Over the years, there was a big push to get people back to residential parts of the neighborhoods with good, affordable housing. One of the ways to attract residents is to have the same services as in the new developments." A strong retail presence not only keeps residents in the area, but also provides jobs and attracts visitors from other neighborhoods.

Attracting retailers, however, is not easy. "The hardest thing to revitalize in this district is the visibility of the area itself," says Nick Wolff, program manager for Visitacion Valley Business Opportunities and Outreach to Merchants (VV BOOM) in San Francisco. "It's often overlooked in San Francisco. We do a lot of marketing and paint the picture that we know exists here."

Visitacion Valley is one of nine districts in the San Francisco Neighborhood Marketplace Initiative (SFNMI), which receives funding from the Mayor's Office of Economic Development. The program began in 2002 when a city council member from Excelsior approached LISC about starting a commercial corridor program there. Since then, LISC has added districts by issuing requests for proposals to merchant and neighborhood associations and selecting areas with a track record of improving their financial districts.

To attract businesses to the area, the first step is determining who lives there, Wolff says. VV BOOM made brochures that compiled the neighborhood demographics. "The median income per household in Visitacion Valley is very high," Wolff says. "It's a misperception of the people who live here and how much money they have. The spending power is very under-recognized."

Understanding the importance of market data, Indianapolis set up a Web site with the information prospective retailers need. The tool is a project of Focusing Commercial Urban Strategies (FOCUS Indy), a partnership between LISC, the Central Indiana Chamber of Commerce, the Indianapolis Coalition for Neighborhood Development, and Indianapolis. The city and LISC split the cost to set up IndySiteFinder.com, which is hosted by the city's server and has a database of market information, such as available properties based on size or units; economic and demographic data; and maps. Prospective retailers can search a location and pull up data for a three-mile radius, including how many people live in the area, their net incomes, and how many dry cleaners or coffee shops already occupy space. Property owners also can list available sites and include aerial photographs. "A lot of that information is out there, but it's not easy to find for free in one place," says Will Pritchard, program officer for LISC Indianapolis.

FOCUS Indy also prepares marketing materials, brochures and site profiles, and works with architects and designers to draw images of potential uses for the buildings. "The districts do what a commercial broker would if they were marketing the site," Pritchard adds. Some of the districts under FOCUS Indy's Neighborhood Business District Program also have designated people to call prospective retailers and sell them on the benefits of locating in the area.

In Milwaukee, the SOHI Economic and Restructuring Committee meets once a month to discuss businesses they want to attract to the area. "We try to work with residents, business owners and property owners to make those decisions," Stanley says. "We want to keep them in the loop and let them guide decisions." The committee also maintains a database of approximately 600 businesses and sends them weekly updates about what is happening in the district. SOHI even has set up a YouTube channel to post videos about available properties, including interviews with property owners who have rehabilitated the buildings.

SOHI is one of six districts in the Main Street Milwaukee program, which launched in 2005. As of April, 68 businesses had opened or expanded in the districts, 57 buildings had been updated and $4.4 million in private investment was allocated in the form of funding or services.

Once businesses move into the districts, Indianapolis, Milwaukee and San Francisco have support programs, ranging from business coaching to assistance in finding grants for improvements. In Milwaukee, architects have adopted some of the districts and offer design services. The neighborhood district managers in the cities also work closely with the city to help with permitting, code violations and other planning issues.

Once businesses move in, street festivals, benefit auctions, and art- and food-based events help the districts increase their visibility. More than just fluffy functions, they help the areas express their identities, bring volunteers together, give the community a place to gather and draw visitors that might not otherwise come to the area.

In October, the San Francisco Chronicle ran an article addressing how fairs in the city's Neighborhood Marketplace Initiative districts have attracted attention to the areas. One of the most successful of those fairs has been the Portola Festival, which is in its sixth year and features arts and crafts, dining, children's activities, and a stage with live music and other performances. This year's event took place on three blocks and attracted more than 5,000 visitors.

VV BOOM also just held its third annual Leland Avenue Street Fair, with 4,000 people attending the family oriented event. More than 70 residents volunteered to help. "It's a good time for people that maybe overlook this corridor to come down and leave with a positive impression of it," Wolff says. "They look at the businesses on Leland Avenue and maybe notice a produce market, taqueria or coffee shop that they didn't know existed. It also corrects misperceptions about cleanliness and safety."

Dressing up

Revitalization, however, cannot occur without physical improvements. FOCUS Indy offers a Facade Improvement Program, which distributes grants of up to $20,000 to businesses in the city, with preference given to buildings in the designated Neighborhood Business Districts. "It's a great public-private partnership," Pritchard says. A representative from the city is on the committee that makes decisions. "We try to cluster the awards," Pritchard adds. "If the city is working on properties on a block and we get an application from a nearby business, they're more likely to get a grant." The committee also steers grants away from properties that are not cooperative with the city or that are not current on their taxes.

In Milwaukee, the Mosaic on Burleigh district is using physical improvements to strengthen its identity. Working with a business consultant provided by Main Street Milwaukee, it chose the mosaic theme to represent the diversity of businesses in the district and is complementing it with streetscape improvements, including seating areas along the street with obelisks decorated with mosaic tiles. "Main Street Milwaukee is so important to taking an urban environment and creating something whole and beautiful and useful out of it," says Jean Meyers, main street manager for The Mosaic on Burleigh district.

In May, at its annual Burleigh Blooms event, the community planted foliage obtained with a Home Depot grant and cleaned Burleigh Street. Volunteers later enjoyed an Art Window Crawl, during which they traversed the street to view the photographic displays that University of Wisconsin Milwaukee art students created to fill boarded-up windows in the district.

In San Francisco's Visitacion Valley, a major streetscape renovation on Leland Avenue is in the pipeline that would involve planting trees, installing sidewalks, digging up concrete and expanding corners on curbs. Since the Schlage Lock Co. closed its Visitacion Valley factory in 1999, the city has been working with a variety of community groups to create a master plan for the 20-acre site, which will include retail and housing. San Francisco-based Universal Paragon has purchased the site and plans to transform it into retail and up to 1,200 housing units, with an eye toward sustainability. In addition, an 8,700-square-foot library is slated to open in 2010.

Revitalization does not take place overnight, particularly when the process of disinvestment in the neighborhoods took decades to occur. The lengthy nature is due, in part, to the time it takes to form connections among the stakeholders. In Indianapolis, for instance, FOCUS is working on building new relationships with the mayoral staff after a new mayor was elected last year, Pritchard says.

While the partnerships take time, they are also the key to the revivals. "Public-private partnerships are the most effective way to accomplish a lot of our goals — overall community and economic development, along with safety, design and cleanliness," Wolff says. "These things are achievable when partnerships are formed."

Jennifer Grzeskowiak is a Laguna Beach, Calif.-based freelance writer.