|Franklin, Tenn., a Great American Main Street winner|
In his blog posting on Switchboard, “Are Main Streets a Thing of the Past? Is that Ok?” Kaid Benfield suggests as much as he likes Main Streets, they are destined to be a distant memory of their once-thriving past. I have learned much from Kaid, as I am an avid reader of his posts on Switchboard and Sustainable Cities Collective. But I have worked with Main Street communities for 10 years, and have seen downtowns achieve outstanding successes. Main Street revitalization programs rally the community’s support to reinvent themselves through grassroots-driven, strategic economic development. I want to keep this dialog going.
Kaid's blog states: “A by-the-numbers environmentalist may not have a reason to: if land consumption is reasonably limited by new models, if places are walkable and reduce car trips and emissions by placing shops, services and people close together, if they are well located (and especially if also transit-served), why worry if someone’s sentimental bit of Americana isn’t what it used to be?”
|Fruitvale, Ca., transit-oriented development|
I ask the by-the-numbers environmentalists, what is the impact to our environment if we demolished those 229,164 buildings that the Main Street network rehabbed? I am not worried about people who don’t care about being sentimental. I am worried about people who don’t care about embodied energy. The work of the National Trust’s Preservation Green Lab proved that “when comparing buildings of equivalent size and function, building reuse almost always offers environmental savings over demolition and new construction.”
The sweet spot for the Main Street Four-Point Approach to commercial district revitalization is in places with populations under 50,000 – of which there are 30,000 in the US. A former director of the National Trust Main Street Center once suggested that there are at least 30,000 central business districts in need of some level of reinvestment; and within those places, there are probably 3 million older and historic buildings needing some TLC and even green retrofits, and 5 million small and independent businesses giving new life to those older buildings. Throwing away those 30,000 existing communities is a horrific idea – but when we declare the death of Main Street and believe they are only good for remembering Americana – we are committing community suicide.
Environmentalists can’t afford to be so linear in their thinking. In fact, that is why I think the sustainability movement is so critical. It blends three important areas that traditionally had been silo’ed – environment, economics, everybody.
|Lifestyle center in Clarendon (Arlington, Va)|
On the economic side of things – the National Trust for Historic Preservation didn’t form the Main Street Center because of nostalgia. It figured out that comprehensive revitalization and economic development (the Main Street Four-Point Approach) can save historic buildings. The economics piece trumps preservation so much that the Trust is spinning the Center off as a subsidiary.
|Good customer service in Rogersville, Tenn.|
When you are restructuring an economy that sat idle for 30 years, your work is cut out for you. But you take inventory of your assets, opportunities, and what your competition does better and you figure out what your position is in the marketplace. Then you work your ass off to get there. Sometimes, it is becoming a travel destination or building on the good fortune of being in a college town – but most of the time it about discovering the sales leakage and pent up customer demand for products and services and finding ways to plug the leak and meet the demand. These aren’t magical economic circumstances; they are results of market analysis. We can’t buy socks on most Main Streets anymore. But, let Walmart sell those. Main Street is better off being a home for unique independent restaurants and shops, where attention is placed on providing an experience and personalized customer service.
Here are just two quick success stories of successful Main Street districts that aren’t tourism destinations and aren’t wealthy bedroom communities of larger cities.
|Artsy, quirky cool Old Town Lansing, Mich|
- The local Main Street program in Old Town Lansing, Michigan, began in 1996 amidst crime, grime, and a 90% vacancy rate. The changes from applying the Main Street approach are dramatic – 13 businesses open during the recession and today there is an 11% vacancy rate and the district saw $55,800 in public investment and $6,231,531 in private investment. Entrepreneurs and artists made a commitment to the community and led with arts-related development. Artist-created public art and street furniture, arts-related businesses and galleries, and arts-oriented events brought people back.
|Before & after of the "Pink Palace" a community-led rehab|
- Jacksonville, Illinois, is a small town with a population of 19,466. When its Main Street program started in 1999, the commercial vacancy rate was 27%. Today it is 6%. Urban Renewal decimated the downtown and shattered the spirit of the local people. But the people persevered despite all odds – little support at the start of implementing the Main Street Approach, high crime rate, and no economic bullet. $17 million in private reinvestment and $7 million in public improvements later – their Main Street is thriving. The Main Street program spearheaded rehab of a historic home that had became a haven for drug users and transients at the district’s gateway. People volunteered their time and resources - the bank donated the money that would have been used for demolition, trade school teachers taught students how to perform tuck pointing and other skills, and prison laborers help get the job done. Once complete, the home was sold for $20,000 more than what real estate experts said it could and the day-to-night change in appearance sparked $85,000 in investment in nearby homes.
A blog entitled “Are Main Streets a Thing of the Past? Is that Ok?” has already decided that they are relics. But Main Street towns are still here – they were built with pride and built to last. Keeping them going is the highest level of recycling and realizes the goals of smart growth. Reviving an economy isn’t easy; big box stores and e-commerce are challenges, and, hell, financing rehabs and mixed-use projects today is tough. But it is being done – so, please, let us talk about that. People aren’t saving Main Streets because of idealized visions of Mayberry. They save them because they are great places to live, visit, and work and with strategic economic development efforts and the support of the community, they will always have a future.
|Culpeper, Va., community members celebrating a new public art installation done by a local artist|