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Consultants’ report on Havana Main Street contains surprises

Since Havana Main Street became an official body recognized by Florida Main Street last August 15, the new organization has made great strides toward its goal of improving downtown Havana.

The latest step toward that goal took place last week when four national and state Main Street consultants visited Havana to help our local Main Street set priorities and determine strategies to help Havana Main Street move forward.

The culmination of the intense four-day visit by the group — filled with long days studying every aspect of the town — came in a Transformation Workshop last Thursday evening at the Hazel J. Baker Community Center in downtown Havana.

At that workshop, the four visiting Main Street consultants presented their findings and recommendations to Havana Main Street about how our local organization should move forward.

Two Main Findings

The two main things the consultants said Havana Main Street should focus on was strengthening downtown Havana’s daytrip-based economy to appeal to tourists and those coming into town for just a day, as well as strengthening downtown Havana’s home-based economy to better serve those of us that already live and shop in the community.

And while this may seem like just plain common sense, the consultants also provided much detail through which this transformation of downtown Havana as we now know it could happen.

The consulting team making the visit included national consultant Todd Barman, whose focus is local economic development; Norma Ramirez de Miess, senior program officer and director of leadership development for Main Street America; Ronni Wood, coordinator of the Florida Main Street Program; and local downtown revitalization specialist Sharlene Celaya Cannon.

Tuesday, the team was treated to a walking tour of downtown Havana guided by Havana Main Street board members before a lunch meeting with the entire board.

Tuesday afternoon the team hosted a press conference prior to meeting with local economic development officials, the Havana Town Council and volunteer committee members.

Barman said at the press conference that one of the teams’ goals was to help with specific challenges facing the Havana Main Street program.

The workshop last Thursday night started with the consultants giving an overview of the Main Street process and structure so those assembled would have a better idea of how the process would work.

Next, the consultants moved on to explaining the details of how Havana Main Street should be developing a more robust daytrip-based economy in downtown Havana, as well as a stronger home-based economy for downtown Havana.

Daytrip-Based Economy

For a daytrip-based economy, the consultants said the first order of business was to have examples of themed day trips such as home décor day trips or heritage daytrips (such as coming to the new Shade Tobacco Museum).

Next, was to add the following elements:

• Strengthening on-street and in-store ambiance;

• Strengthening the food and beverage experience;

• Strengthening the experienced-based retail mix; and

• Strengthening hospitality.

Strengthening On-Street and In-Store Ambiance

There were a number of ways mentioned to strengthen on-street and in-store ambiance such as:

• Fencing or screening dumpsters;

• Lighting parking lots;

• Lighting building exteriors;

• Providing surprise cutout locations;

• Improving conditions of the sidewalks;

• Improving store window merchandising (for both occupied and vacant stores);

• Maintaining buildings better (including dealing with interior and exterior moisture).

• Having heritage-based storytelling murals;

• Starting sidewalk chalk art and other street artists;

• Allowing plein air arts painters;

• Increase food businesses;

• Adding pushcarts complementary to local businesses; and

• Allowing quality street merchandising.

Strengthening the Food & Beverage Experience

According to the consultants, the first step to strengthening the food and beverage experience of downtown Havana is to celebrate the food and beverage vendors we already have here.

Special mention was made by the consultants of Melba Ginsberg, the owner of Melba’s Place, and how friendly she was to everyone.

Ways to broaden downtown Havana’s existing food and beverage experience include:

• Broaden available price points (with high- and low-cost options);

• Broaden heritage-based food such as soul food, a Cuban restaurant and/or a cigar bar;

• Broaden target customers such as ice cream and candy for children;

• Open outdoor seating;

• Have more food events; and

• Establish a Farmer’s Market.

Strengthening the Experienced-Based Retail Mix

As for strengthening the experience-based retail mix, again the consultants said the first step was to celebrate the stores in downtown Havana that already add a experience-based retail business.

The next step was to strengthen the experience-based retail mix by adding experience-based businesses such as:

• Make-your-own pottery or art;

• A quilt shop with quilting classes:

• A yarn shop with knitting classes:

• A bicycle shop with classes on how to build and/or repair bikes; and

• A cigar shop with classes on how to roll your own cigars.

Other service businesses also can be added such as spa services, interior design services and/or other personal care services.

Strengthening Hospitality

The consultants listed the following ways to strengthen hospitality

• Offer package deals;

• Offer concierge services with perks;

• Have common hours for stores;

• Extend evening hours;

• Have signs apologizing to Monday/Tuesday shoppers (offering discounts if they come back);

• Having a public restroom:

• Letting the public use store restrooms; and

• Providing much better signage.

Home-Based Economy

As for increasing Havana’s potential to offer a home-based economy, the consultants stressed that products and services need to be offered in a way that strengthens the community, with downtown Havana serving as a home base for everyone within 15 minutes drive time.

Havana is a Disconnected Community

Some of the factors affecting why Havana is a disconnected community right now, according to the consultants, include:

• Racial disconnect;

• Income disconnect; and

• Educational disconnect (not just education levels, but education systems do to the poor public schools).

However, the consultants pointed out the religious connection of the community was a strong asset and that the community had the potential to strengthen community connections and spirit once again.

Building Up Community Spirit and Pride

Some things to do, according to the consultants, to build up this community spirit and pride in downtown Havana are to:

• Celebrate the community’s home-made products already being made;

• Support entrepreneurs who want to begin making home-made products;

• Develop Maker Spaces such as a Wood Shop a Metal Woks Shop, a Fabrics Arts Shop (for quilting and sewing) and other arts-and-crafts spaces;

• Develop cooperative shared selling spaces;

• Celebrate and market home-grown suppliers of food and beverages; and

• Celebrate and market locally-owned, independent businesses.

In order to create a feeling of Homecoming, the consultants also recommended Havana Main Street get into partnerships with local schools, churches, neighborhood associations and civic associations.

Other ideas were to improve downtown’s sense of place, and to continue to celebrate the downtown area at existing community gatherings.

Next Step

The next step is for Havana Main Street and its volunteers to try to take all this information and recommendations and make some sense of them.

Tony Lombardo, executive director of Havana Main Street, summed up by saying, “Thanks to all who attended and have shown interest in improving Havana, Florida using the Main Street America transformation stategies. We are proud of the accomplishments of Havana Main Street so far and look forward to continued success with the program.”

To join Havana Main Street, or to volunteer to help with one of its events, contact Lombardo at tony.havanamainstreet@ or (850) 591-2222.

By Randall Lieberman