When my husband and I bought our first home together, in Downtown Tallahassee, we never expected to love it like we do today. We wanted a place that would allow us to scale down belongings and share a car. Our downtown location provided us the opportunity to walk to our offices, past murals, historic landmarks, museums, blocks of restaurants and a chain of parks. We quickly discovered we did not just make an investment in our home; we now held a stake in downtown Tallahassee. Every day we appreciate the value of living, working and playing in the heart of our city and in doing so I have come to recognize the assets and realized the opportunities for improvement.

As a community, our strength is held in our shared cultural experiences. It is Springtime Tallahassee- where families, students, young professionals, retirees- all 70,000 members of the targeted demographics arrive at the same parade and stick around to patronize the vendors at the Jubilee in the park. It is similar broad community support that put LeMoyne’s Art in the Park on the map as the top-grossing art festival in the country. Running in the Jingle Bell Run, shopping at the Downtown Market, enjoying the TSO Spooktacular, sharing a meal at The Longest Table, all forge comradery and community. An extensive line-up of festivals (the Experience Asia Festival, Harambee Festival, VegFest, the Science Festival, Word Of South, Experience Tallahassee) proves Tallahassee has a rich culture of openness and inclusivity, a desire to understand other perspectives and experience new things.

Fortunately, the development of downtown is catching up to the experiences around it. If you look at just a few of the projects underway in Downtown Tallahassee (2018 saw 20 buildouts) you will see a focus on a sense of place with mixed-use offerings. The Cascades Park Development will have a “Festival Alley” with entertainment as the cornerstone to attainable housing, a hotel, and local eateries. The Ballard Building now stands on the coveted downtown corner of Park Avenue and Monroe Street, with stunning office views of greenways, customizable lease options for businesses and a decadent Italian steakhouse. Instead of attracting a chain, local restaurateurs from Sage were offered the opportunity to reinvent. Washington Square, under construction on South Calhoun Street by the prominent Loews Hotel Group, will bring in 19 stories of hotel rooms, condos, office space, and four restaurants. FOUR. These projects will give downtown a new skyline, cultivated experiences and a more defined sense of place.

A recent Washington Post article discussed in detail the desire for developers to create the kind of magic our downtown has enjoyed for years. Less and less are developers seeking chain restaurants and big name stores to lure consumers. Instead, they are creating greenways for yoga in the park (offered for free in Kleman Plaza in the spring) and Instagram-worthy backdrops (snap a pic at the Tallahassee postcard mural! The TLH Letters! Illuminated Chain of Parks at night!). The core of this concept is authenticity. Everything, from experiences and aesthetics to eating and purchasing, should be unique, local, and genuine. Cities that capitalize that on these assets are attracting the next generation of businesses and citizens. We must not let the thief of comparison to other cities steal our joy, but recognize when we get it right.

We have to be mindful that while trends can be fickle, authenticity and sense of place are more than just taglines. They are reasons to be excited and involved in downtown growth. We need to focus not just on festivals but infrastructure improvement to allow these authentic experiences to thrive. Improvements in filling empty storefronts, increasing wayfinding, and upgraded parking are paramount to our success. Creating a welcoming and open environment for all also includes improved sidewalks and covered bus stops. It is important to prioritize our needs, focusing on strategies that will enhance our community in the present and into the future. Why continue to invest in downtown? Because we love our city, flaws, festivals and all.

Many people talk about the benefits of and a desire for a vibrant downtown. To achieve that, we have to be enthusiasts for downtown. Rally for the improvements, and engage in the events, dine at the new restaurants as connoisseurs of our city. We are rapidly approaching our Bicentennial Anniversary in 2024 celebrating 200 years as Tallahassee, the Capital of Florida. This anniversary warrants reflection, not just on our history, but on our current strengths and our future needs. As it has been historically, improvement is driven by those who choose to call our downtown community home – no matter where they live. Together we have a chance to provide a future for our entire city.

Tallahassee is a unique place, built brick by brick, through the collaboration of private investment, public stewardship, and hardworking people. The time to make a difference in Tallahassee is now. To maximize our success, we have to work together. Let’s collaborate on improvements as proud supporters of the heart of our city. There is action everyone can participate in, from attending events, identifying our strongest local assets, giving good business reviews and sharing information on social media, publicly advocating for improvement and planning, to partnering on solutions. If our community planned to fill the five years leading up to our bicentennial with impactful experiences and meaningful improvements, they could be the best years we have seen. 2024 can arrive to a strong Capital because of our civic investment, a movement, and city worthy of significant fanfare. Take part in Tallahassee.

Column by guest writer Elizabeth Emmanuel, Program Coordinator for Leadership Tallahassee, and Board Member for the Downtown Improvement Authority.