Downtown Developments: Revitalization and the art of the covered dish supper

By Ben Muldrow, Partner, Arnett Muldrow


Growing up, every Wednesday night, my family would head over to the Presbyterian Church for the covered dish supper: 40 feet of joyous jubilation in Jesus’ generosity. If you’re not familiar with these blessed events, allow me to school you. One meal. Many sides. Everyone brings something. No one leaves hungry.

I learned so much about people in that congregation hall, but it wasn’t until much later that I realized those suppers are much like the world of downtown revitalization.

INFRASTRUCTURE. After the seemingly days-long line, we finally arrive at the first table with all the plates, cups, napkins and utensils. These are the kinds of things that no one is going to bring on their own, so the church provides them. They set the serving size. They make sure it can be consumed according to the experience they’ve envisioned. Sound familiar? The plates are like downtown infrastructure. Our sidewalks, benches, crosswalks and parking lots are the basics that allow commerce to happen. And nobody ever says, “Man that dinner was amazing, did you see those clear plastic forks?” Dear city, thank you for setting the table.

WHERE IS THE MEAT? We move on down the line. Next stop is entrée land. As you can imagine, meat can sometimes be in short supply. We rarely see someone busting out steak for one of these things. Deli ham? Maybe.

See, the meat is the big investment. It’s the thing that everyone wants—but no one is willing to foot the bill for the good stuff on our potluck buffet, and herein lies the problem. If we cannot establish quality standards for acceptable entrées, we’re expecting every- one to be excited about a cold cuts tray.

This is where many communities step in to recruit. The $1.8 million retail incubator, the $8 million muse- um shaped like a Loaf of Bread, and the ordinance forcing all buildings to look like a quaint Swiss Village—but they’re all bologna. The community’s job is to provide the strongest possible plate so that the people, the businesses, the events and experiences can become the buffet of options. Our community should be a plate that features its entrées through investments in beautification, branding and business friendliness—things that often would be considered gravy. Our community should be the plate that motivates real people to make big investments. We have to have people like Griz willing to smoke pork for 13 hours out of sheer pride and commitment to the place he calls home.

LOVE ON THE SIDE. Next up, let’s part the sea of casseroles. Loaded two by two, here’s where things get creative. There’s an interesting battle that goes on between mac and cheese makers: we have our Velveeta Chefs, our Creamy Connoisseurs, and our old school egg-and-ground-mustard diehards. The folks who decide to enter this race obviously have something to prove. In this analogy, it’s the local business owners that are each their own side dish, offering special flavors and comforts to their customers. Every business isn’t for every customer, but I think we can all agree that is it probably the coleslaw who’s griping about parking (bless their heart). It’s the combination of unique businesses that creates the distinct flavor of our district.

FINAL STOP: DESSERTS. Dessert is our community’s special and always-evolving experience offerings—the cool alleyway project and amazing Brewfest, the farmers market and public art. It’s the look, feel and aroma that make a place unique. This is the vibrancy, the sweet, final ingredient that makes the magnetism visible and a place feel alive. If people bring quality covered dishes, and we arrange them, thoughtfully, on a quality table stocked with all the essential tools… well, we can all share a great experience—one that keeps people and their families coming back, week after week.

Now, let’s all go grab another slice of that blue-ribbon pie. 

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