On a chilly night in late November, several thousand people gathered at Zona Rosa, a mixed-used development in Kansas City, Mo., to kick off the holiday season with the lighting of The Crowns, bringing back fond memories of the 1950s when this display graced downtown Kansas City.

The Crowns, made from aluminum and canvas and measuring 17 feet in diameter, are suspended above the streets and walkways. The ceremony is just one of several events, including a classic car show and an arts festival, hosted at the property.

“Events create energy for the centers, making them a destination for the community,” says Rosemary Salerno, general manager for Zona Rosa, which is owned by Columbus, Ohio-based Steiner + Associates. “They become the pulse of the community.”

After all, suburban town centers are called town centers for a reason. They provide a gathering place for community events, much like downtowns of old. Developers are working extra hard to connect with residents in surrounding neighborhoods through special events such as movie nights, parades, jazz concerts and farmers' markets, not to mention building civic centers, police substations and libraries.

The entertainment and community-feel satisfies development opponents, and also pleases retail tenants by attracting crowds of potential shoppers. It's a different model than the canned entertainment one finds in regional malls, which is aimed more at marketing than at incorporating the community.

The bottom line

Creating and executing successful events requires considerable effort and money. It demands participation by all involved, including the developer, retailers and office tenants as well as support from the residents, says Jeff Zeigler, executive vice president of Continental Real Estate Cos., which hosts farmers' markets, concerts and festivals.

Even the smallest programs can be pricey. “It's not cheap to put on quality events,” says Steve Ewbank, executive vice president of Planned Community Developers. The firm developed and owns the 32-acre Sugar Land Town Square, which was designed as a public gathering place and a new “downtown” for an area in suburban Houston.

“Whatever budget you come up with, multiply it times two and that's probably what you need,” Ewbank says. He estimates that a large mixed-use project serving as a town center needs an event budget of at least $500,000 per year, but notes that many are as robust as $3 million.

Industry experts agree the cost is worth it, even if the return on investment can't actually be measured. “Some owners tend to get overly focused on the bottom line,” says Buzz Gosnell, CEO of Woodbine Development Corp. “It's paralysis by analysis,” he says. “You can find a reason why not to do anything.”

Terry Montesi, chairman and CEO of Fort Worth, Texas-based Trademark Property Co., says you have to go with your gut feeling. “You can't point to an event and say that it brought in more sales,” he says. “But, when it comes to connecting with the community, it's mostly about the intangibles. We think the cost is worth it and we're betting that in the long-term the investment will pay off.”

Taking on partners

Partnering with community organizations can produce surefire winners. “We've found that it's better to do all of our events in cooperation with city government or community organizations,” says Brian Stebbins, CEO of Cooper & Stebbins LP, which is building in phases the Southlake Town Square, a 130-acre project in suburban Dallas-Fort Worth. “Partnering allows the community to endorse the environment and the event,” Stebbins says.

For example, his development has joined with the Southlake Women's Club to host Art in the Square, a three-day outdoor festival in April that attracts 40 local and regional artists. Last year, the event grossed well over $300,000 for the Women's Club, with proceeds going to community charities. This year, the event is expected to draw more than 75,000 people to the Square.

“Our events' budget is not very big, but we are able to have big successful events because of our partnerships with local organizations,” Stebbins says. “We couldn't do events like the art festival on our own because they require a huge amount of manpower.”

Similarly, Sugar Land has hooked up with the local Chamber of Commerce to host a food-and-wine event dubbed Taste of Town Square, while Steiner's Zona Rosa joined with the local symphony to conduct a fundraiser called Voilà for Violins where local artists decorated violins that were then auctioned for charity.

Often, community organizations will seek out venues for their events, notes Jenny Taylor, activities coordinator at Market Street in The Woodlands, a master planned community in suburban Houston. Soon, St. Luke's Community Medical Center will set up its fun run and health expo, “Just for the Health of It,” at Market Street, a mixed-use project developed by Trademark Property. “They know that if they host an event here, their event is going to get some serious recognition from the community,” she says.

It's common for mixed-use properties to host charity walks and runs. Nationwide Realty Investors, for example, opens up its Arena District in Columbus, Ohio for the local Walk for the Cure and the Pet Promise Rescue Run. “Events like these build awareness of the project,” says Michelle Chippas, Nationwide's director of marketing and promotions.

A cheap date

The most popular events for these mini-towns center around music or movies, according to Taylor. Market Street's Smooth Jazz Concert Series attracts more than 20,000 people annually, with about 1,000 coming to the Thursday night concerts in the spring and fall. People bring picnic baskets, lawn chairs and quilts to stretch out on the green space and enjoy jazz from local and regional musicians.

In suburban Phoenix, Kierland Commons has hosted a summer concert series for the past five years, notes Gosnell of Woodbine Development, which developed the mixed-use project that includes high-end retail and office, along with a Westin hotel. He says 500 to 1,000 people show up for the concerts that are held every Saturday.

It's movies, rather than music, that get the community excited in Sugar Land, says marketing and events manager Paul McHugh. The Town Square hosts “Movies under the Moon” every Saturday night and shows family oriented films such as Madagascar and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to audiences of 700 or more.

People choose the movies by going to the Sugar Land Town Square Web site to vote. The Web site, which also includes a detailed events calendar, gets 10,000 hits a month and 1,500 people vote on the movie choice.

Replacing downtowns

Years ago, residents went to city centers to find public spaces where they connected through festivals, parades, concerts and other community events. Suburban sprawl, however, took a heavy toll on urban downtowns.

Now, mixed-use centers often fill that gap, says Jane Lisy, vice president of marketing and commercial management at Forest City Enterprises Inc. The developers' sprawling Victoria Gardens complex in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., was designed to provide a downtown for an old agricultural community that didn't have one. One of the center's biggest events is the Founder's Day parade.

Sugar Land's McHugh agrees. “People want to find a place where they feel part of the community,” he says. The Town Square, which consists of 220,000 square feet of high-end retail shops and restaurants, 150,000 square feet of office space, 167 residential units, a 300-room hotel and conference center, as well as a post office and library and the Sugar Land town hall, has 84 events scheduled this year.

“The goal is that we have an event every Friday and Saturday,” McHugh says. “A few events every so often may add value, but they're not enough to create the warm fuzzy feeling.”

Building community buy-in

Industry experts say that events can't be successful unless they tie in to community needs. “It's not about adding value to the retail or the office space, it's about adding value to people's lifestyles,” says Jan Zachariasse, president of Waterford Development LLC. “We talk about these projects as if they're just sticks and bricks, when they're really about people.” The company has introduced a variety of events at its mixed-use project, The Spectrum in Falls Church, Va., including poetry readings, art shows, classical music recitals and jazz concerts.

“It's important to understand the community so you can target your events,” says Gosnell. He uses Woodbine Development's newest project, Main Street Commons in Gilbert, Ariz., as an example. “In Gilbert, our events are geared more heavily for the family so we have more daytime events,” he notes, adding that the company is considering a summer concert series and a farmers' market.

Creating events that hit the community's sweet spot only happens by trial and error. For example, Sugar Land Town Square's St. Patrick's Day event last year missed the mark, McHugh says, because it targeted families. “We thought that families might enjoy St. Patrick's Day, but realized that it is an adult holiday with a lot of drinking,” he says.

This year, the Town Square is taking a different approach, partnering with one of its restaurant tenants, Baker Street Pub, to host a St. Patrick's Day celebration. The Town Square is expecting about 3,000 revelers at the event, which will include a variety of Irish music, games and dancing, not to mention the most important element of all: green beer.

Beyond music and movies, holiday events attract a lot of visitors, especially those that have traditional elements. Kierland Commons, for example, hosts an annual Bunny Hop, an Easter event that encourages people to get dressed up in Easter outfits and join in a parade with old-fashioned fire trucks and music.

Tree lightings and Christmas parades, however, are critical events for almost every mixed-use center. Market Street in The Woodlands, for example, hosts a horse-and-carriage parade the first week of December reminiscent of Victorian-style Christmases, Taylor says. It attracts more than 7,000 people.

“We want to embrace what was successful in years gone by … events that are a throwback to Main Street America,” Gosnell says.