One of the most challenging aspects of a commercial district manager’s job is engaging property owners and businesses. Without property owner engagement, retail attraction is difficult to impossible. And without business owners, marketing and promotional efforts can miss the mark in your efforts to grow retail sales. While it can sometimes be difficult for us to understand why property owners and business owners are so reluctant to participate in our efforts, there are ways to engage property owners and business owners. So what’s the answer? It starts with relationship building.

I a currently facilitating a new program by Coro New York called the Neighborhood Leadership Program. This program, funded by the New York City Department of Small Business Services, brings together 20 emerging and established leaders in commercial revitalization throughout the City of New York. It is a truly amazing group of individuals who are knee-deep every single day in the experience of managing commercial districts. So when this group of accomplished leaders started brainstorming about how to engage reticent building and business owners – you bet I took notes! Here are some of their ideas, along with some of my thoughts, about gaining trust and soliciting participating from community stakeholders.

  • A good compliment can go a long way. Flattery and deference are always helpful when starting a conversation. Find something authentic to compliment them about. I have a colleague who is quite successful at this. Whenever I walk his district and we bump into someone he knows, I am always impressed by how he takes pains to offer some tidbit of information about the person that is tremendously flattering and often deferential. It’s amazing to see how these compliments leave these people beaming and ready to help and participate in any way they can. He is one of the most effective organizers I know, and one of the few people who can pick up the phone and ask anyone for anything – and they actually do it! That’s alot more than I can say for most people!
  • Diplomacy helps. When you do need to offer criticism, be diplomatic and don’t criticise harshly.
  • When asking, be specific. When approaching someone with an ask, be clear about how they can help and be focused and strategic in what you are asking. Is it time? Is it money? Is it their knowledge about something in particular? Unless you know them well, flesh out your ideas in detail before making the ask.
  • Visit frequently to see how things are going. Don’t just go see your building and property owners when you need something. Go see them to frequently just to check in, to see how business is doing, and to find out what you can do to help them. You’d be amazed at how having your ear to the ground and building these relationships can help you improve your job performance.
  • Figure out what your shared goals are and find a way to address those needs through your actions. If store owners are concerned about security, and you also know that security issues are hampering the entire district, tap certain business owners to participate on your security committee. If a store owner is particularly good at window displays, ask them to help other businesses in the district. This example came up recently on a visit I made to a commercial district in Philadelphia. I was amazed to see one business owner take it upon himself to help others with their window displays. As a fellow business owner, his colleagues were more willing to take his advice. This is not to say that he did not face resistance. He shared with me that it was his mission to help one particularly reticent business owner with their display. What was his tactic? Visiting frequently and building a relationship! Sound familiar?
  • Tap their interests. Find out what interests them and find a way to engage them on that issue. Do something for them. Helping your businesses and property owners is a bit like building a reserve in a bank account. The more you invest up front, the more likely they are going to reciprocate when it comes time to request a withdrawal, i.e. their participation in something you are doing.

This list is clearly not exhaustive, but what is key is that building relationships and trust is the first step in engaging your property owners and businesses in your efforts. So good luck!