New Hampshire First Impressions: Embracing technology to assess and revitalize downtowns

By Casey Hancock, Community and Economic Development Program Coordinator

Does your downtown impress, or does it fall short? A new program called First Impressions seeks to improve and revitalize downtowns by using feedback from first time visitors.

Through a Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development (NERCRD) grant, Geoff Sewake and I attended a training in Brattleboro, Vermont, where several national Extension professionals gathered to learn how to implement First Impressions in their respective states.

Together, we conducted an assessment of Brattleboro using paper booklets. While the paper booklets have been used for years successfully, and are very thorough tools, what struck us was an opportunity to embrace technology.

Started at the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension in 1991, First Impressions is a community swap assessment program: teams of volunteers in two communities each conduct an assessment of the other community’s downtown.

The main goals are to obtain feedback from first time visitors that highlight positive assets and opportunities for improvement. Community leaders and volunteers then implement recommendations to improve their downtown. Outcomes may include increasing visual appeal, improving marketing, branding and promotion of the downtown, and enriching the climate for new businesses, residents and visitors.

Following our training, Geoff and I discussed how to adapt the First Impressions program to meet our state’s needs. With Shane Bradt’s assistance, we decided to utilize Collector for ArcGIS, a mobile data collection application.

When a community volunteer is using the app, they select a characteristic from a list, fill out a description, observation, and choose a rating on a scale of poor to excellent from a drop down menu. Once they submit, the information is stored as a point on a map that other volunteers are able to see instantly. Using technology provides an easy way to quickly collect and aggregate data, and allows volunteers to pinpoint what they are assessing on a map.

Following the completion of the assessment, we aggregate the data and create an interactive map where community members can view the data points. This allows for an interactive way to consider the strengths of their downtown and plan to address newly identified opportunities for improvement.

Adapting the paper booklets to a mobile application has been a process—and challenging at times. The paper booklet assessments are incredibly detailed and require participants to answer questions about the community as well as rate different features, such as housing, community amenities or businesses.

It has taken time to review the booklets and identify downtown characteristics appropriate for participants to assess through the mobile application. There have been many iterations of the list of characteristics which currently includes items such as community art; sidewalks, crosswalks and trails; landscaping; businesses and seating.

Have you seen the Community and Economic Development staff walking around Durham using their phones lately? No, we’re not playing Pokémon Go – we have been testing the Collector app for First Impressions! Staff were happy to take a recent trip to explore downtown Durham: it was a beautiful day with good company.

Geoff and I were able to practice teaching others how to use the app, receive some suggestions for improving the characteristics, get some data points to aggregate, and enjoy some tasty burgers, too. To see what characteristics we collected and assessed in Downtown Durham, view the map: