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Editorial: Let’s help city consultant spend that money!

Predictably, the size of the contract recently approved by the Concord City Council with a local public relations firm raised some concern about the use of taxpayer dollars. Louis Karno & Co. will be paid nearly $200,000 to market Main Street during the construction of its big redesign project.

To be sure, that’s not peanuts. And the main message isn’t complicated: Keep shopping! But spent well, the money might mean the difference between survival and collapse for some businesses downtown.

Beginning in September, work will begin to widen sidewalks, shrink Main Street to two lanes with a turning lane, increase handicapped accessibility and create room for landscaping and public art. The construction will stop around the holiday shopping season and then pick up again in March.

In other words, getting around could become a headache. The PR money will be used to keep visitors coming downtown, offer daily updates on construction (and perhaps emergencies) and provide a conduit between shopkeepers and the city. What to do with it? Here are four suggestions to fuel the conversation:

∎ Web cams. Setting up cameras that can show residents, school children and potential downtown visitors what’s going on with the construction project – above ground and even below the streets – will help generate and sustain interest in the project. Cameras would be useful in city garages too, so people could see that there are spaces free. (Or if they’re not.)

∎ More events. We will reserve judgment for now on the spat over combining the Christmas tree lighting and Midnight Merriment, though it has always seemed odd to ring in Christmas before the Thanksgiving leftovers were even cold. Regardless, downtown will need to invent some new promotions to make shopping there worth the aggravation, even if they’re just one-time celebrations.

Here’s one idea: an evening of open-extra-late shopping and music in which all sorts of bands could be heard playing from inside city parking garages. The music in unexpected places might be fun – and it would remind residents that the garages do exist and are not, in fact, tricky to use anymore.

Here’s another: An autumn or spring version of the summertime Where’s Waldo game currently under way downtown. Not familiar with it? There are small Waldo characters hidden in 20 downtown businesses. Kids (and, presumably adults too) on the hunt get a passport stamped each time they find one. Collecting 10 different stamps entitles a player to a sticker and a discount coupon at Gibson’s Bookstore. Collecting 16 gets you entered in a bigger prize drawing. The PR mavens could invent a construction mascot character and plan a similar community scavanger hunt. (Just don’t hide him in the construction zone.) With cool enough prizes, it could lure some grouches out of the mall and back downtown.

∎ “Before” shots. When this project is finally finished, a big “before and after” photo display will be a fun part of the celebration. The consultants should encourage residents to submit photos of life on Main Street today, to be displayed months from now.

∎ A gripe line. The consultant promises big use of social media. One thing that would help: a section of a website or Facebook page where residents could register specific complaints or ask specific questions and have them resolved or at least addressed promptly. The goal of the operation, according to the consultant’s winning proposal is to “get the whole community behind the project.” Speedy customer service will help.

I went to Dover over the weekend and they allow the first 15 minutes of on street parking to be free if you are just doing a quick errand (the businesses all have signs promoting the fact as well). They chalk the tires, I think that is a great idea for folks running into the bank, picking up photos from Concord Camera etc.

Get rid of the parking fees, all of them. Chalk tires. 2 hour limit in a space.

A better way to invest in Main Street would be to invest in a campaign to lure new business here. Ones that would meet needs and take into account the income levels of the folks who live here and what they can afford. When you have to try this hard to get folks to shop downtown, the issue is not what downtown looks like or parking. The issue is what folks can afford to spend. Again, we are not Concord MA.

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