Community Assessment finds Los Alamos has potential

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By Carol A. Clark

Hearty laughter laced with a bit of embarrassment marked a Community Assessment Workshop at the Los Alamos Research Park Thursday evening.

Roger Brooks of Destination Development Inc. of Seattle, Wash., was brought in by the Los Alamos Chamber of Commerce to assess the community through the eyes of a first-time visitor.

Brooks clearly captivated the nearly 100 business, community and county leaders with his brutally honest impressions.

Armed with an arsenal of unflattering photos, the assessor’s “in-your-face” presentation style left little doubt Los Alamos has some major rethinking to do.  

“The heart and soul of every community, besides its people, is its downtown,” Brooks said. “It is the litmus test for anyone looking to relocate a business or family to the area, and can be the primary driver for tourism spending.”

The top diversionary activity of visitors is shopping, dining and entertainment in a pedestrian-friendly, intimate downtown setting, he said.

This is also where most of the tourism spending takes place. But if locals don’t hang out downtown, neither will visitors, Brooks said.

A successful downtown depends on a number of factors including business focus, critical mass, beautification, retail signage, wayfinding, gathering places, gateways, and amenities, he said.

A town must find that one thing that puts it on center stage and sets it apart from the competition. Visitors have no reason to visit if they can experience similar activities closer to home and Los Alamos has to tout what sets it apart.

“Creating a concept of downtown as a true destination – giving it boundaries, a name and developing its unique brand – are all elements of the downtown development process,” he said, adding that the days of generic marketing are over and trying to be all things to all people doesn’t work.

He commended the community for placing the skate park downtown saying it adds vibrancy and decreases vandalism.  

Brooks shared his first impression of the entry to Los Alamos with photos of the guard tower, followed by chain link and barbed wire fencing and lots of trash scattered around the area.

He suggested adding native landscaping to the base of the entry signs and replacing the “Welcome to Los Alamos” with “Downtown Los Alamos – I mile” and placing the welcome portion of the sign closer in.

One minor change Brooks recommended that could reap huge economic rewards is to change the sign at the Trinity/Central road split to direct Bandelier visitors through downtown on Central rather than Trinity.

Bandelier receives an estimated 250,000 visitors a year and diverting even a small portion of those people to shop and dine downtown could result in millions in added annual revenue, he said.

Brooks also mentioned that gateway arches at the edge of downtown can increase retail sales by 40 percent.

The guard houses tourists must pass through on their way to the ski hill, Jemez, Valle Calderas and Bandelier are not tourist friendly, he said. He thought he’d made a wrong turn when he encountered them and suggested signage stating, “It’s OK – This way to Bandelier.”

“Bandelier is a New Mexico not-to-be-missed attraction,” Brooks said.

He described Bradbury Science Museum in similar terms. “The Bradbury is probably the number one anchor in Los Alamos…Our whole perception of the lab and Los Alamos changed,” he said after touring the museum.

As for the Los Alamos Golf Course – not so much. Brooks presented exterior photos of the clubhouse with an overall unkempt appearance including trash overflowing onto the ground from a receptacle.

“It’s a reflection of the community and looks like nobody cares,” Brooks said.

A major complaint from Brooks was the lack of comprehensible signage on stores and restaurants. He suggests signage should explain in eight words or less what a place offers.

Informing visitors is critical and he recommends installing a dozen 24/7 information kiosks around Los Alamos. He couldn’t decide whether Fuller Lodge was a hotel or a museum and said placing a “Meeting Center” sign out front would make its function clear.

He also advocates hanging signs perpendicular to the street along the corridors around the downtown area.

Brooks mentioned that 70 percent of all consumer spending is done after 6 p.m. It would be better for local stores to open at 11 a.m. and close at 7 p.m. rather than 9 a.m.-5 p.m., he said. Also, downtown open-air markets held 7-10 p.m. are really gathering steam, he said.

“Make downtown more colorful – think New Mexico red, blue and yellow,” he said. “Your downtown is sterile – there’s no color, no vibrancy.”

Curb appeal can account for 70 percent of first time sales for restaurants and retail shops, he said, adding that the state of New Mexico is spending millions each year to attract visitors and this community has got to do its part. “Knock off the beige, brown and tan,” Brooks said.

Businesses need to step up and put potted evergreen shrubs and colorful flowers around their storefronts, he said.

Brooks showed photos of the dilapidated looking Shriners and Elks buildings on Trinity Drive. “Auxiliary organizations are supposed to be about community and not a detriment to the community,” he said.  

Brooks suggested doing away with the word atomic saying it’s sending the wrong message and is not well received in this day and age. “There’s a general perception that Los Alamos and radiation are one and the same,” he said.

The town will always be about the lab and that should be embraced, he said, but sub brands and niche brands should be created.

No more strategic plans, he said, develop "to do" lists instead.

Brooks wrapped up his memorable presentation commending Los Alamos for its beauty. “The way the canyons divide Los Alamos is spectacular,” he said. “Los Alamos has great, great opportunities.”

Brooks suggested beautifying storefronts, playing up local recreation opportunities, softening the use of the word atomic, branding and focusing more on science and environmental work at LANL and to begin developing critical mass.

Contact Carol A. Clark at lanews@lamonitor.com or (505) 662-4185 ext. 25. Read her blog at www.newsextras.wordpress.com.