Annual IDA Conference | Exploring Equitable Investment in Urban Downtowns

Updated: Jan 21

A city’s downtown is its vital artery, providing access for the flow of people from one destination to another and serving diverse retail, cultural, and civic needs for residents, workers, and visitors. When you picture any given municipality from Portland, ME to Portland, OR, you’re likely picturing their downtown. Downtowns are the municipality’s welcome sign, the ubiquitous view with which they are inevitably associated – and they belong to everyone. Investment in a downtown has a lasting impact on the development of policies impacting the broader municipality and the formation of external perceptions and broader cultural narratives about that municipality.

From October 28-30, Karp Strategies’ Director Ali Sutherland-Brown attended the annual International Downtown Association (IDA) conference in Baltimore, Maryland. Ali joined over 900 place management professionals, thought leaders, and urban planners to participate in a variety of talks and tours focused on the theme of “Proudly Urban.” “The conference was a great reminder of why we do what we do and how to do it well,” affirmed Ali.


The IDA works with place management organizations and a global network of strategic partners to provide practitioners with the tools, information, and strategies they need to keep their city’s downtown relevant and competitive. While at the conference, Ali attended master talks on the relationship between mental health policies and commercial corridors grappling with how to help people experiencing homelessness, the politics, and practicality of walkability, and the competitive advantage to diversifying innovation districts.


John Snook’s discussion of the importance of homeless outreach and access to mental health services and substance use disorder treatment was a critical reminder that downtowns are not just sites of commercial transactions but also of social change. Snook is the Executive Director of the Treatment Advocacy Center, a national nonprofit whose work focuses on policy development to increase access to and decrease stigma around mental health treatment. When viewed through the lens of public health, we see the danger in criminalizing the behavior of the mentally ill, especially as it relates to downtowns, and can work more effectively towards compassionate care for those in need of treatment, thus making downtowns safer and more welcoming to all.


Ali also took an illuminating walking tour of the East Baltimore Redevelopment Initiative (EBRI). The tour offered an intimate view of the city’s work to stabilize and revitalize an 88-acre site in East Baltimore through a combination of economic, community, and human development strategies. The EBRI site now includes increased green space, inclusive and affordable housing options for residents, responsible relocation packages, investment in education programs and institutions for youth and adults, and job creation and training programs.


Andrea Batista Schlesinger, director of the Inclusive Cities practice at HR&A, reminded conference participants that “Economic development is a political act.” How can we take a holistic view of inclusive development, like that of the East Baltimore Redevelopment Project, and in so doing, focus on the totality of resources and services that residents and workers need to successfully thrive in place? Our team is constantly working to find new methods of identifying who are the given residents and workers of a particular neighborhood and what specific needs and opportunities impact their potential economic advancement. How can our work ensure that wealth develops and circulates locally? How can we elevate the unique dynamism of each neighborhood in which we work and avoid privileging a singular view of prosperity?


As we continue our work measuring the economic and workforce impact for municipalities and corporate clients operating within various urban markets, including a Downtown Revitalization Initiative for Baldwin, NY and last year’s community planning analysis for the Staten Island Skyway , our team will no doubt continue to refine our approach and strategies to ensure that the needs of hyperlocal and historic communities are included at all phases of stakeholder engagement, analysis, and policy development. Karp Strategies is thrilled to have attended our second IDA Annual Conference in a row and we look forward to strengthening relationships made through this important organization.

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