- Photos by Anthony Jinson
New initiative supports The District’s growth.
With more than 5,000 residents, 600 businesses, and 300 property owners, The District is one of Columbia’s hottest tourist destinations. The restaurants, shops, galleries, hotels, theaters, event spaces, salons, and other businesses making up The District’s 50 square blocks — bound by three college campuses — draw people from across the country and the world.
And now, The District has a plan in place to make sure it remains a vibrant and enticing area that continues to draw businesses and visitors alike.
All about the numbers
About six months ago, The District began using a web-based program called Placer AI. Through Placer AI, The District is able to access foot traffic data that measures store traffic and traffic to the downtown area. According to Placer AI, foot traffic data analyzes the movement of people from place to place. Using information collected from a variety of sources, including cameras, in-store sensors, and data sent from mobile devices, The District is able to compile a vast amount of information about visitors to, and visits to, The District.
In addition to learning more about shopping trends within The District, the information available through Placer AI is extremely valuable for retail site selection, property leasing, and real estate investments — all important pieces in drawing business interest and in keeping The District a thriving destination.
“We’ve been in training and we are still learning how to use the program,” says Nickie Davis, executive director of the Downtown Community Improvement District. “It is pretty extensive and we are still learning about all the amazing things it has to offer.”
What is Placer AI data?
Placer AI data is “observed mobile location data that is aggregated, normalized, and extrapolated to generate insights into venues and consumer behavior,” the company states on its website. The company partners with mobile application publishers who embed their software code into hundreds of mobile apps, allowing it to capture data.
When a user stops moving and spends seven to 10 minutes at a location, the data is logged as a visit. According to Placer AI, all placer data is stripped of identifiers, and personal or identifiable information is not captured by the company.
A targeted growth strategy
Once data from Placer AI is in hand, The District will create targeted marketing materials to propel it towards its biggest goal: recruiting new businesses that would fit with downtown’s vibe and fill some key needs in the area.
“We are small-business focused, local focused, and we want to make sure it stays that way,” Nickie says.
The implementation of Placer AI is especially intriguing for The District because Nickie says, there hasn’t been much previous benchmarking or data collection to inform the area’s growth. With data collected through Placer AI, Nickie says The District will have concrete data to help guide growth plans.
“We wanted to figure out where we are now so we know how to grow properly and know where to focus our efforts,” she says. “Our main goal is to attract businesses while we pinpoint where we’ve been and where we’re going.”
Using curated data from Placer AI, Nickie says her team will create marketing packets, full of various data sets, that will go out to targeted businesses. The packets will include information about how many visits a specific business would be estimated to get in downtown Columbia, how much that type of business is needed, and what the downtown area is losing by not having that specific type of business, Nickie says.
“The marketing packets themselves will be quite intensive, with a lot of design work and printing,” she explains. “The data we get from Placer AI is a tool for our office to use to help grow our downtown.”
Filling the gaps
While 2022 ended with a downtown commercial property vacancy rate of 4.46 percent, according to market data from Plaza Commercial Realty, Nickie says the constant goal is to close the vacancies around the downtown area. With data from Placer AI, Nickie says The District will have the ability to help determine what type of businesses should go into those open spots, and then target those specific businesses.
“With more businesses comes more vibrancy, so everybody wants more businesses,” Nickie says. “We’d love to see diversity in those businesses so we can keep things interesting, and we’d like to keep them small, if possible. Any type of new business is always exciting, but it is important to get businesses that fit our community and that we know people would love to see here.”
As the team learns to harness the extensive data available through Placer AI, Nickie says she expects that it will be used in additional ways. Understanding the foot traffic patterns will also likely reveal some hidden patterns.
“It will help us to figure out where to focus things like future art installations,” she says. “Right now we can see that we have more traffic coming in from the college side rather than the Providence side, and when we know these things, we can focus our efforts in those areas.”
In addition to filling an important role in attracting businesses and growing the area, the data gained from Placer AI has been helpful to existing businesses as they seek to understand their customer traffic, and as they focus on their own growth.
“We’ve been able to help businesses with grants they were trying to get,” Nickie says. “They needed to know foot traffic, and data that they may need for certain things is something we are happy to provide our businesses with.”
Though it wasn’t a driving force behind implementing the Placer AI software, Nickie also expects the data to be especially helpful to realtors working to sell and rent space in the downtown district.
“If a realtor is showing a space in the downtown area, I can help them sell the space with this extra information, so we can get those vacancies filled faster,” she says.
The downtown area is already highly sought-after and desirable, and this new focus on gathering data to support the continued growth is evidence of the ongoing commitment to maintaining a thriving downtown area.
“People want to be downtown which we appreciate because it’s one of the best parts of our city,” Nickie says. “We are just making sure we continue to keep it that way, and that we can help our property owners in any way we can.”
And as a cherry on top, the Placer AI data is revealing what Nickie and Columbia’s residents already knew — that downtown Columbia is a highly desirable area that is home to thriving businesses, unique housing, and plenty of tourists looking to discover the city’s treasures.
“Over the past 12 months, we’ve had 7.8 million visits to downtown Columbia, with a frequency of eight visits [per person] over the course of the year,” Nickie says. “It is one of our biggest tourist areas, with people coming from all over the country.”