Article Originally Appeared in PM Magazine.
Revitalization and Main Street Transformation
Improvements to Main Street’s Signature Revitalization Framework Are Around the Corner
by Patrice Frey
Over the course of the past decade, America’s downtowns have experienced a renaissance, with boomers and millennials choosing to live in communities that are walkable and that provide distinctive character and diverse amenities. This is true for the biggest of counties and smallest of towns.
But even with these powerful demographic forces at work, downtowns and neighborhood commercial districts can still face an uphill battle. Achieving the right mix of housing, retail, restaurants, transportation, green space, and more is a complicated calculus.
For a lucky few downtowns, greatness may happen effortlessly with a strong sense of place that seems to develop organically and simply sustain itself. For most places, success doesn’t happen by chance.
Vibrant downtowns—like Lake City, Colorado (www.lakecitydirt.com); Woodbine, Iowa (www.woodbineia.org/main-street); or Birmingham, Alabama (www.revbirmingham.org)—are successful because of long-term, strategic, tactical growth and management.
Over the past 35 years one tool in particular—the Main Street Approach—has helped communities to effectively organize, execute, and achieve their vision for success downtown.
A WAY FORWARD
The Main Street Approach, and indeed the Main Street movement, grew out of rising concerns in the late 1970s and early 80s that the increasing suburbanization of the American landscape and urban renewal efforts were doing irreparable harm to downtowns and their older and historic structures.
Harnessing a unique mixture of professional downtown management and volunteer engagement, the program offered a way forward for communities. It helped them prevent or reverse deterioration of the character of downtowns and commercial districts by focusing comprehensively on the overall health of these areas.
While Main Street-style revitalization has always looked slightly different depending on the local context, successful downtowns typically have one thing in common: They have pursued revitalization strategies that are comprehensive in scope.
There is no quick fix or single project that can turn a downtown around. Successful place management and transformation can only be achieved through forward-looking strategies, a comprehensive focus, and work across these four key areas:
1. Development of targeted economic development strategies that improve the mix and vitality of downtown businesses, cultural institutions, and housing.
2. The pursuit of quality design, including improving transit accessibility and walkability, as well as building rehabilitation and façade improvements.
3. Marketing of the district, including the development of a distinct branding and programming for the area to attract shoppers and visitors.
4. The successful development of a professionally managed downtown organization—whether that entity is housed with a city or county, or is a stand-alone nonprofit.
Main Street America’s long-standing revitalization strategy, called the Four Point Approach, offers a critical playbook that corresponds to each of these four areas of focus—economic vitality, design, promotions, and organization—enabling local leaders, downtown managers, and volunteers to take revitalization into their own hands.
Over the past 35 years, this approach has been used in more than 2,000 communities, generating nearly $65.6 billion in downtown reinvestment—often in downtowns and neighborhood commercial districts that have faced significant disinvestment and decline (see Figure 1).
AN ENHANCED TOOL
A refreshed version of the Main Street Approach was launched last fall and is in beta mode now. It’s aimed at helping communities of all sizes embrace a more strategic, outcome-oriented approach to revitalization.
Fundamentals of the Main Street Approach remain the same, but there is increased focus on long-term economic transformation and helping local leaders to strategically organize their efforts to achieve tangible, measurable goals.
Since implementation of the Main Street Approach makes use of professional downtown managers and mobilizes volunteers, it can substantially lessen the burden on local government to “turn around downtown” or reinvigorate fledgling neighborhood commercial districts.
In successful communities, however, lasting revitalization depends on strong partnerships and coordination between the Main Street organization, local government, and small business owners. Modest financial support from local government, combined with small business sponsorships and event-generated revenue, are needed to sustain downtown improvement efforts.
Where special district financing is available, it can be particularly effective at generating a sustainable revenue stream for revitalization work.
MAIN STREETS AT WORK
What does Main Street revitalization look like in practice? Communities using the Main Street Approach come in all stripes, from the bustling H Street NE corridor in Washington, D.C.; to the scenic college town of Milledgeville, Georgia; to rural Rawlins, Wyoming.
As different as they are, each of these places has used Main Street as a framework to guide inclusive, strategic, and effective revitalization efforts.
The H Street NE corridor, for example, has undergone dramatic transformation since the mid-20th century. Disinvestment, segregation, violence, and high-vacancy rates all posed serious challenges to this neighborhood that, at one time, was a major hub of African American culture and industry in the city.
While the District of Columbia is now one of the hottest real estate markets in the country, H Street’s dramatic resurgence is not simply attributable to the city’s overall economic boom. The commercial district, with the support and leadership of this H Street Main Street program, has strategically navigated the forces of new development, gentrification, and preservation using Main Street as a guide.
Today, H Street NE is a diverse, lively neighborhood filled with a mix of historic character, local flavor, and new development. It has become a destination for residents from other neighborhoods, while still managing to support a mixed-income population and diverse group of business owners.
Main Street Director Anwar Saleem sees his role—and that of the H Street Main Street Program (HSMS)—as the community’s go-to resource for residents, business owners, and developers.
“HSMS has been the on-the-ground and accessible clearinghouse of relevant information about proposed or pending development projects,” says Saleem. He notes that the success of the H Street District is related directly to intensive engagement with the community and partnership building with local businesses.
"'Traditional approaches’ [to economic development] are very distant into the past now, since we have actively engaged residents and the business community for 14 years now about the need for growth and managed change.”
While different in scale, the revitalization challenges in smaller, more traditional Main Street-style communities can be equally challenging, and require strategic goal setting and strong leadership. Rawlins, Wyoming (population 9,200), like rural communities across the country, faced significant economic challenges in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Since adopting Main Street in 2006, Rawlins has brought the downtown vacancy rate down to 10 percent from 45 percent and leveraged local community involvement, amounting to more than 7,000 volunteer hours.
While maintaining the town’s historic character and charm is a key priority, the leaders at the Rawlins Downtown Development Authority/Main Street program are not relying on charm alone to shape the future of the community. The Main Street program, for example, was instrumental in helping to open the Rainbow Te-Ton Entrepreneur Center (RTEC).
Situated partly in an old hotel—once known locally as the “pigeon hotel” for its state of disrepair—the RTEC now gives fledgling businesses a chance to share expenses and ideas with one another. It offers conference and training rooms, virtual office space, and monthly business classes.
And it works: The center has generated 200 new jobs and 28 new businesses downtown. This innovative reuse of a historic building, dedication to fostering local entrepreneurship, and clear economic impact are illustrative of the way Main Street can help small communities live up to their full potential.
On the other side of the country, Milledgeville, Georgia (population 19,401), serves as yet another example of how Main Street communities can tap into local resources, build partnerships, and build on their history to ensure a strong future.
The Milledgeville Main Street program is nearing its 30th year in the program and has continuously built on its successes to ensure the downtown is an inviting, economically thriving, and diverse destination. Since its founding in 1988, the Milledgeville Main Street program has helped generate 394 jobs and 89 building rehabs, as well as bringing in 154 net new businesses and adding 22 downtown housing units—all while reducing the vacancy rate from 50 percent to 8 percent and tapping into a network of thousands of local volunteers of all ages.
While this success alone is testament to the strength of Milledgeville’s program, Milledgeville is embracing change and is an early adopter of an updated version of the Main Street Approach. Carlee Schulte, director of the Milledgeville Main Street program, attributes the Main Street “refresh” with helping her program to “envision our downtown in a way that makes for easier and more strategic planning for the future. We now have a tool with which to identify our unique strengths and leverage them for invaluable community ownership and identity.”
Thus, what makes a place like Milledgeville or H Street or Rawlins work and what makes them thrive is precisely what sets them apart from other places—their authenticity, their distinct vision, and their residents. What unites them is a shared commitment to partnership building, strategic growth, and community engagement.
A MOVEMENT OF THE FUTURE
At its core, this commitment is what Main Street is about. While preserving authentic character, harnessing the value of historic buildings, and helping communities get started on their revitalization efforts are all important components of what Main Street does, the work is never really done.
Even the most successful Main Street programs in communities that are seen by standard metrics as successful, are constantly confronted with change. Managing that change is just as important and central to what Main Street does as getting started.
As the field of community development and revitalization shifts to respond to new trends and challenges (think: housing, transit-oriented development, the rise of online commerce, sustainability, brownfields remediation, and more), Main Street continues to be a tool that helps local government leaders adapt to and make the most of these changes. Main Street always has been, and continues to be, a movement of the future.
For more information on Main Street America and for details on how to get your community involved, visit mainstreet.org.