Downtown and Business District Economic Development

Bill Ryan Community Business Development Specialist

Downtowns and business districts are the commercial hubs of our communities. Not only do they generate sales and create jobs, but they also contribute to the quality of life as they serve the needs of residents, workers, and visitors.

University of Wisconsin-Extension offers research assistance and teaching focusing on downtown and business district economic development. We offer self-help tools and publications as well as direct assistance to communities. One example is our assistance to cities and villages conducting a community-led market analysis (see below).

Our economic development work complements the broader programming offered by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation’s comprehensive Main Street and Connect Communities programs. Our work also assists the remaining non-affiliated communities in the state.

Market Analysis is our signature program for downtowns and business districts. Here we leverage the knowledge of a local study group in a community-led study to determine how best to retain/expand businesses, attract new businesses, improve the consumer’s experience, and develop marketing strategies. A key feature of our work is our commitment to engaging students and faculty from different disciplines such as urban planning, survey research, and real estate development. In addition, our local community development educators work with each community for the long term as a skilled facilitator and a researcher.



Market Analysis Toolbox provides research to support informed economic development decisions. The toolbox provides downtown development leaders with proven techniques for conducting commercial district market studies.

Downtown Economics Topics offers ideas on how to create a vibrant downtown in a small city. The publications analyze the benefits and difficulties of downtowns on topics ranging from coexisting with Big Box Stores to planning the optimal business mix.

Innovative Downtown Businesses provides examples of how businesses are attracting people back to the heart of the town. These case studies are designed to provide local economic development leaders with innovative ideas for their planning efforts.

Downtown Storefront Improvements provides research, information, and analysis to help make decisions about whether or not to improve the appearance of a downtown building. This guide aids in assessing the feasibility of projects based on the experiences of others.

Small Community Forums are annual events that bring together business and community leaders working in communities of fewer than 1,500. Forum participants to learn from each other through case studies, roundtables and discussion groups.

Extension Downtown Revitalization Educational Resources  is a web-based inventory of U.S. Extension resources related to downtown revitalization. It is intended for both educators and  downtown professionals.

Learning from the Experts: The Practice of Downtown & Community Economic Development is a new program that provides professional development through reading and discussion of an assigned book focused on an aspect of downtown development. The author of each book is invited to attend for discussion and Q&A. A local Extension educator may want to facilitate a small group discussion and invite downtown executives, city planners, investors, and others interested in the topic.


Downtown research reports provide information to help your community compare itself to other places in Wisconsin. Reports include an analysis of business mix, downtown employment, downtown residents, and more.



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