If you missed Part One of our two-part series on Mansfield and Easton, it can be found here.
So let’s answer that question. Can Easton’s obvious success provide important lessons for downtown Mansfield revitalization?
Before we delve into that, we’re going to address the 800 pound gorilla in the room. Obviously, Easton and downtown Mansfield are competitors, as both draw — or could draw — specialty retail shoppers from this part of Ohio. The two locations are close enough that those potential customers have a choice to make, and so any marketing plan to make downtown a regional draw would likely include Easton as a factor.
For a moment, however, we’re going to ignore that fact and look at the two as separate and distinct market draws.
First, let’s point out some obvious similarities. Both downtown and Easton are mixed use developments combining retail, office, and restaurant businesses. As noted in our first post, both were built or grew in a traditional downtown format, with no setbacks in front of commercial or office structures, metered on-street parking, and a scattering of open parking lots. Easton and downtown Mansfield host similar types of events, from concerts to farmers markets to car shows to entertainment. Both have public art.
But what about what could be similarities if hoped-for revitalization took hold locally? To answer that question, it is interesting to take the Mansfield Rising Plan and compare its hoped-for plan components to what one can find now at Easton. All of these fit that description:
With so much in common or what could be in common, the question is begged about how Easton and downtown Mansfield differ.
Obviously, single ownership of buildings gives Easton a tremendous leg up in any competitive environment. With one owner instead of dozens and dozens of owners, much of what is necessary to succeed can be written into store and restaurant leases – common open hours, uniform appearance, types of signage, etc.. Speaking of leases, similar uses can be easily grouped together consistent with marketing plans, giving an additional boost to retailers.
Common building ownership also means that there are few disparities with individual building maintenance; Mansfield’s buildings are also much older and built of more durable materials — and with age comes increased maintenance concerns.
Each of these are powerful factors in Easton’s success. Each also demonstrates why Ohio’s downtowns are so difficult to revitalize as dozens of building owners and dozens of individual merchants need to reach consensus and move, as much as possible, as one.
All is not lost, however. We conclude this comparison with Easton with a somewhat radical thought. Even with the staggering advantages profiled above, Mansfield could still have an edge.
For one thing, we have more variety in terms of types of use. Easton’s office presence, for instance, is almost exclusively on its second and third floors; in downtown Mansfield, many banks, governmental/institutional uses, and professionals have a ground floor operation. A handful of church communities provide an additional unique flavor as well as a steady stream of downtown visitors.
Then there is Richland Carrousel Park, a gem the kind of which Easton can not boast. As a focal point for downtown, it is a powerful icon and draw.
Above all, however, is one factor, what has been termed by community developers as “authenticity.” This observation could be summed up by the statement “Easton is fake, and Mansfield is real,” but it goes much further than that. Downtown Mansfield does not look like downtown Newark, or downtown Lima, which creates the prize over which marketers salivate – it is different. Differentiation is the idea that it is what makes a place or product different from others that makes it attractive.
Younger Americans crave real places. A growing number of Americans of all ages enjoy immersive travel and shopping experiences. As the International Downtown Association shares, “Authentic places are those that accurately reflect the uniqueness, character and heritage of a district, leaving those who use and visit it feeling like they have been in a one-of-a-kind, memorable place.”
And Mansfield has real life stories to match with its shops and spaces. The buildings which line its streets are the most important assets which downtown has, particularly when partnered with the diverse voices of its people today and throughout its history.
We will end this series this week with two additional posts, one looking at downtown revitalization efforts across north central Ohio, and one providing a set of observations about the Mansfield Rising plan.
Photo: Creative Commons License