Professions in Preservation: Main Street Manager

Designed to help the preservation community learn more about the scope of careers in the field, this article is the third in a series of profiles of careers in preservation. We continue the series by asking four Main Street managers about the work they do, the education they received, and their perspective on the field of preservation.

1. State your name and title(s).

KF: Kelly Franks, Main Street Manager, City of San Marcos, Texas (21 Years)

KH: Ken Harmon, Executive Director, Bennettsville (South Carolina) Downtown Development Association (BDDA) (22 Years)

MS: Michael Sessions, Main Street Manager Blissfield, Michigan (3 Months)

CH: Carola Lillie Hartley – Executive Director, Bridgeton Main Street. Also chair of the South Jersey Main Street Coalition (21 Years)

2. Describe your typical day as a Main Street Manager.

KF: There are not many “typical” days in Main Street. Twelve-hour days are the norm and often include meetings with potential or existing businesses, as well as discussions on downtown issues with city departments or communityorganizations such as the Downtown Association. Planning and implementing special events, addressing graffiti or security concerns with the downtown patrols, meeting with owners on potential rehab projects, parking improvements with the Downtown Parking Board, and writing reports or newsletters often fill each day.

KH: My day begins with my "list" of things to do that day and beyond. I generally begin making that list the night before carrying forward those things I did not accomplish that day. Nearly always, things come up after work one day that goes on the list for the next day. I've never ended a day with a completed list. It's part of what keeps my interest at the highest peak.
I am a one-person office so all the duties fall on me or volunteers that I must supervise (thank God for volunteers). I try to visit our downtown businesses as often as possible to learn their needs. There is always something that deserves my attention. My office is in our City's Visitor Center and this gives me an opportunity to tout our downtown to visitors and locals who come in for various services.

Business recruitment and business enhancement are top priorities with me. This is a full-time job within itself. During these slow days it is even more challenging, but you "keep on keeping on."

Meetings, meetings and more meetings. Working with our city marketing, our county industrial recruitment, our county image campaign, all things I feel are needed to help grow our downtown, take getting together with those folks involved. We are a small town and we must all work together to succeed.

So the day draws to a close? Not yet. Attendance at events the public expects you to attend, speaking to local groups about our downtown, and then going home to let the dog out.

MS: My typical day as a Main Street Manager begins with checking emails and phone messages. I usually have two or three phone messages each morning and half a dozen emails. I respond to those messages right away and then head over to the Village office to speak with Village staff on issues pertaining to that day. From there, I head back to the office and start my correspondence with business owners. Depending on the day, I will have spoken to 5 to 10 different business owners. My day does not usually end until seven or eight at night.

I consider my work in Blissfield as relationship building. I’m constantly answering emails and speaking with business owners late at night. I have given business owners at least three ways to contact me.

CH: Are you kidding! Is there a typical day? First of all to do this work, you have to be able to handle a flexible schedule. For example, one work day may begin at 10 AM and go until 6 PM, when the next will begin at 6 AM and go until 10 PM. You never know from week to week. I also have projects and activities that require me to work on some weekends and holidays. An example of a work day for me goes like this: Up before 5 AM in order to dress and make it to the radio station for the show I do on Mondays. One or two meetings in the morning and afternoon usually follow that.

I try to visit with the downtown merchants at least once a week (not all of them, I see some one week and some the next, and so on.) On many days I have evening meetings that last sometimes until 9 or 10 PM. I also have to make time to meet with city, county and state officials and attend local, county and state meetings when necessary. And, I try to keep up with the local Historic District Commission, sometimes attending their meetings as well. I also make every effort to involve young people in the revitalization of our downtown (historic preservation). I try to make time during the month to work with the schools on our Youth on Main Street Committee.

3. What special training did you need in order to do this job?

KF: The training received through the Texas Main Street Program is critical as is the ongoing training offered throughout the year. It is essential to addressing the 4-point approach of the Main Street Program.

KH: There is never enough. Not a day goes by that I don't wish I had more education, more training. My background is in radio broadcasting. Forty plus years. Running a small-town radio station gave me great experience in working with businesses, working with the Chamber of Commerce, special events, promotions, etc. Learning about people was a great help. As a broadcaster, I became involved in the formation of our Main Street Organization in June of 1986. I was hooked and have been active in the organization ever since. In 1997, I retired from radio and became the ED of our downtown organization. They have been the happiest days of my life.

Along the way I have been most fortunate to have local Main Street Boards who have guided me, supported me, cajoled me, and blessed me. I have been fortunate to have a state organization to always be at my beck and call and to give me training in every aspect of the Main Street program. These people have sustained me, trained me, and held my hand.

MS: Before becoming the Main Street Manager here in Blissfield, I was mayor of Hillsdale, Michigan. It was during that time that I gained an appreciation and desire to continue on in local government—more specifically economic development. The training that I received was through my time as mayor.

CH: I’ve always loved history, antiques and historic buildings. I have a background in history, interior decorating and business. I think I needed all those education classes, training sessions and experiences in order to do this work. I have training in all of the four points of Main Street - Organization, Promotion, Design and Economic Restructuring. I’ve had additional training in the arts, rural tourism development and non-profit management. In addition, I served as chairperson of the Historic District Commission in my home town and have training in that as well, plus training in managing a local history museum. And many years of “on the ground training” working with five different communities in three states.

4.  What range of projects would/has typified the work you do?

KF: Texas State University, with an enrollment of 32,000 students, is located on the north edge of downtown, which presents opportunities and challenges. I work with various university departments on downtown projects and frequently make presentations to classes, give tours, or meet with students on projects. Projects range from redesign of various historic properties to researching historical building information in the designated Main Street area. We also utilize students for clean up, image improvement projects annually in a program called Bobcat Build. Approximately 3,000 students volunteer a Saturday to clean-up, plant, build, remove graffiti, and other jobs for many different organizations. All over the City. Main Street plans or supports special events, produces a downtown directory twice a year, develops marketing/advertising, worked on a City branding project, the downtown master plan and the development of form-based codes.

KH: Downtown revitalization means recruiting businesses, rehabbing buildings, preserving our historic downtown (most buildings are over 100 years old) working to keep new construction in keeping with our heritage, and generally being the keeper of our past. Our motto is, "Celebrating A Proud Past and A Promising Future." As a Main Street Manager one must have knowledge of historic preservation, construction, design, tax credits, local, state and national laws, and sometimes pulling the public along with you to preserve their history.

MS: I do development, re-development, and relationship building here in Blissfield. It is a joy to be able to bring someone’s dream to reality. I work hard each day to do such.

CH: During my career, I have worked on many historic preservation, downtown revitalization and tourism projects associated with the Main Street Four Point approach (Organization, Design, Promotion, and Economic Restructuring). These range from forming the first Main Street organizations in Opelousas, LA; Greensburg, KY; and Newton New Jersey; working on historic tax credit projects in Nicholasville, KY, promoting concert series and creating branding campaigns, and leading business recruitment projects in various states.

I also work on projects to help involve the different cultural and ethnic groups in the community. I see our Main Street organization serving as a “connector” with projects and activities involving everyone, and bringing the community together. “Unity in the Community” is a motto I try to follow in everything I do.

5. What personal qualities and skills would be useful for a person in this kind of role?

KF: Patience, flexibility, and knowledge of the 4-point approach is critical.

KH: Thick skin. A love for historic properties and their history in general. An unending desire to preserve the past while adapting to the future. A willingness to learn from everyone you work with on a daily basis. A love of people realizing that we are all in this together.

MS: You have to be a people person. You have to listen. You have to have empathy. Those are the three characteristics that are useful for a person in this role, or any other role in public service. It’s the characteristics that I hold near and dear to my heart each day and I know that if I do so, then I will gain the respect of each person I am working with.

CH: I think it is important to be able to stay focused and to be” flexible.” You also need to have a good sense of humor at times, and be open to criticism. And I think you have to be creative and willing to “think outside the box.”

6. Any other thoughts on the preservation field or the work you do?

KH: Main Street Managers are a very dedicated group of people, devoted to preserving the past for generations to come while improving the future of downtowns and communities all across the country.

KF: I've been told that in South Carolina, the average tenure of a Main Street Manager is under three years. They just burn out, seek more money, etc. These things are true; however, I believe happiness in your work transcends all things and the remuneration you receive is far more than money. I am thankful for the opportunity to do what I do. I can't imagine working and not going home happy at the end of the day. And then there's preservation. I believe the future is based on the past. Look around our small towns and see what our fathers and grandfathers left us. WOW! Look up for it's there you see our heritage.

MS: It’s something I enjoy. I enjoy listening to the different stories and learning about people. This job allows this to occur.

CH: The Main Street Program was started by the National Trust as a way to help save the historic buildings in decaying downtowns and put them to good use. I think historic preservation should always be at the forefront of what I do. But as important as it is to save and restore historic buildings, it is just as important to make them work in the 21st century. Our Main Street organizations using the Four-Point Approach make this happen. I really believe in Main Street and in the work I do for the communities I serve.

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