Gartner evaluates year in The District

Thursday, September 2, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:48 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

It's been one year since the marketing campaign was launched that turned downtown Columbia into "The District." While Carrie Gartner, director of the Columbia Special Business District and the Central Columbia Association, has some qualitative impressions of how downtown is doing, it's the Twilight Festival that provides downtown merchants and her office with the only hard numbers by which they can measure their progress.

Gartner, 37, became head of the Downtown Columbia Associations in 2000. Previously, she had worked as a political campaign fund-raiser and political director for the Missouri Democratic Party.

She has bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in communications.

She grew up in Orange, Calif., outside Los Angeles.

Missourian reporter Jennifer Oladipo talked to Gartner on Tuesday about the next steps in The District's marketing, what businesses are doing and the importance of the festival to The District.

Q. It's time for the second phase of the Twilight Festival. June was pretty successful. What is planned for this month?

A. We're continuing with Flatbranch Park. We introduced that last June for the first time and (the Columbia Parks and Recreation Department) and the Convention and Visitors Bureau have come together to help us continue programming that area. We're having a circus - dancing dogs, a ring master, clowns, jugglers, circus music, so it ought to be fun.

September Twilights are always a little different. There are probably more college students and more active seniors there. We get a lot of people age 60 and over.

Q. The Columbia City Council voted to block off Ninth Street to vehicles traffic during Twilight. How will that affect the festival?

A. You won't be able to drive or park on that street. That's never been a really crowded street for us. We've got a couple guys with a guitar on there, and I think the Blue Note's usually closed that night. Other than parking issues, it's not really going to affect the festival much.

Q. It's almost a year since the Discover the District campaign began. Can you speak to what's been successful? What strategies from your background were you able to apply to this campaign?

A. You know, what I've found to be true in political campaigns and anything is that if you just say things enough, people hear it, and they start to use it. The more we talk about The District, the more people are using it.

And it wasn't just a name. It was a shift in perspective and in the way we were marketing ourselves. I think we were kind of presenting ourselves as a little more boring than we actually were. We're the restaurant and entertainment center of Columbia. ... A lot of it was just letting people know.

Over at Cherry Street Artisan, I was with a friend and I heard somebody, maybe a college student or just out of college, saying something like, "Are you going to come down to The District this weekend?"

College students are early adopters, and since all the ones who come in are new, they don't have a long history of calling it downtown. I hear the new term a lot more.

Q. What is your vision for year number two?

A. It's a continuation of getting people to adopt it. And a lot of it is pulling in a wider range of people. A lot of it is pulling in those who are new to the area, or who may think of downtowns as sleepy places. A lot of it is figuring out who is coming to Columbia, and we do a lot of surveying during Twilight Festival.

We had 20 percent new attendees at (June's) Twilight, which is up from about 16 percent last year.

Q. Speaking of newcomers, what do you do for people who are looking to live downtown?

A. Probably the No. 1 call we get here is people looking for apartments. We have it on our Web site. We carry a list of realtors with apartments in the District. We have 250 to 300 residents, a lot for 43 blocks. We're really trying to encourage property owners to re-do their second stories.

We don't advertise. We just don't have the budget for that. We depend a lot on individual building owners to advertise. But I think we're listed in the phone book under realtors and apartments and so forth. We're a good clearing house, and we kind of assist property owners. It's the same with retail and office space, too. We depend on them to do a lot of work as well.

Q. Columbia has recently been added to the National Register of Historic Places, a list of places preserved and protected as cultural landmarks. Are businesses in The District using that to promote themselves? Are they taking advantage of the accompanying tax credits for historic buildings?

A. Yeah, there are a lot of folks. Atkins City Center on Ninth Street was the first one. Everyone was impressed with that. Quiznos was a tax credit project. Bingham's Traditional Clothing has also been redone. They took down the canopies and put up a striped awning. ... They didn't get the tax credit because the building is not historically accurate, but it fits in nicely.

Q. Speaking of canopies, are they coming out or staying in?

A. They're owned by the property owners. Buildings can't get the historical credits until the canopies are gone because that's obviously a non-historic addition. ... Property owners have to decide how much it costs to bring it down, and how to keep that shading function once it is gone.

Q. It was recently reported that the city's sales tax revenue for this fiscal year would be twice as much as expected.

A. Well that's probably because we're kicking butt. I mean, the city here is smart. They realize if we are strong, they get our sales tax revenue.

We survey every Twilight, and our spending levels continue to increase. And that's a sign to me that consumer confidence is going up.

Q. Do you keep figures and do reviews and things like that being a special tax district?

A. I would love to do something like that but neither the city nor state nor county keeps sales tax records on just the special business district. So the best that we can do to track consumer confidence and spending levels at every Twilight Festival. ... It gives us an indication of trends.

Q. You've had talks with MU lately. What kind of partnerships do you envision, or what's already going on?

You know, they've always been a good property owner, and they contribute to our budget because we don't get tax revenue from them.

We sat down and talked with their planner and discussed their master plan. It's a very long-term plan; all this building you see now is fulfilling that plan. Certainly there's a big chunk of the district that the university has property on. Our organization and the Avenue of the Columns Committee want to make sure that when they plan their stuff and we plan our stuff, we're talking to each other.

Here's an example: Avenue of the Columns. It should be a beautiful vista with the columns and Jesse Hall, almost on par with a lot of stuff you see in D.C. But unfortunately all the trees have overgrown, so you've lost the vista. So the columns committee is looking to work with MU to say, "If we want this to be something special, let's make sure the vista continues onto university property and you really show off your building." So it's as simple as that.

Q. In the time that you've been here, what have you seen businesses do that really helps them succeed downtown?

A. You know, I think the one thing that successful businesses are doing - and this seems really obvious - but they're really marketing themselves.... A lot of it is traditional. I mean, a business that doesn't advertise isn't going to succeed. But there are a lot of places that really do some marketing and cross-promotion of other businesses. For instance, Uprise Bakery has teamed up with Sparky's Homemade Ice Cream. If you go over to Sparky's you'll notice that their chocolate chip brownie ice cream has Uprise brownies in it. And it makes sense.

Q. For businesses who are here for only a short time and don't make it, do you ever find out where they're having troubles?

A. It would be nice if we could do exit interviews. But I feel that a lot of times people are just kind of tired. Running your own business isn't always easy.

Q. Columbia is seeing a lot of development. Do you or store owners in The District worry when you hear about Wal-Mart?

A. No, because anybody who goes to Wal-Mart for cheap underwear, they're a totally different market than us. It's not like we even carry the same things as Wal-Mart, so it just isn't in our scopes in terms of a competitor...

You buy a bike at Wal-Mart and you probably have to put it together yourself. If you buy one at Cyclextreme, Tom Brinker who owns it will become your friend and you can bring it in there for the rest of the life of the bike, and he'll give you a free tune-up. And you will have someone who knows how and where you ride, and what kind of bike you should probably buy next.

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