Getting Started

Using the Main Street Approach

If your community plans to start a Main Street program to revive your commercial district or reinvigorate a struggling or previously failed revitalization attempt, look over the first steps listed below. These recommendations will help you generate the local support necessary to establish a revitalization initiative, as well as to apply to your coordinating program to become an Affiliate Main Street America organization.

Read "Getting Started" - the online chapter about starting a Main Street program from the publication Revitalizing Main Street: A Practitioner's Guide to Commercial District Revitalization. 

First, begin building support for a commercial district revitalization program:

  • Form a working group: Ask colleagues in your community about starting a revitalization initiative. Canvass all stakeholders who have an interest in the future of your downtown or commercial district, including merchants, business owners, property owners, and residents. Contact the mayor and other local government officials, the city planning department, city economic development officials, and other organizations, such as the chamber of commerce or merchants association. Form a working group or task force of interested individuals and community leaders to explore launching an initiative. The wider the group of people you gather, the easier it is to build support and spread the word. All of these entities will benefit from a revitalized district and should support your effort, both programmatically and financially, so you need to bring them to the table now.
  • Take a good look at your district: Look at your downtown or commercial district as if you are a first-time visitor. What are its strengths? What needs improvement? Take photos and make notes.
  • Generate broad-based local interest and support: Hold a community meeting to discuss the idea. Call your state, regional or citywide Main Street coordinating program for advice and possible attendance at the meeting. Ask for feedback from participants and invite them to join the effort. Take their contact information and follow up later.
  • Find out how to obtain designation: Contact your Main Street coordinating program to find out about the application process to become an Affiliate Main Street America organization.
  • Network with successful programs: Invite an executive director or board president from another Main Street America community to talk with your working group or community about their accomplishments and answer questions about how the program works. Their enthusiasm, stories, and pictures will make a strong argument for a preservation-based revitalization program. Facilitate discussions among your stakeholders and those already involved with other Main Street programs. This type of dialog is invaluable, especially for members of the working group. Get mayors, business owners, and economic development staff talking.
  • Spread the word: Ask the local newspaper(s) and bloggers to run a story about the commercial district revitalization initiative. Position a member of the working group as a guest on the local radio station to explain how the community can start a program. Set up social media: Facebook, Twitter, etc for your initiative.

If you decide to launch a Main Street program, here are the next steps:

  • Apply to become an Affiliate, if applicable: Complete and file an application to become a Main Street America Affiliate program through your Main Street coordinating program. Attend an application workshop, if available. If you are not able to join a coordinating program, you can self initiate a Main Street program. However, please remember that you cannot use the name "Main Street" in your organization name without permission from the National Main Street Center. Read our Name Use Policy for more details.
  • Get informed: Get a copy of the Main Street Board Members Handbook to learn about starting a Main Street program. The handbook discusses options for an organizational model, along with other details, such as the financial costs of running a Main Street program. Another helpful book is the Center's basic manual, Revitalizing Main Street, which offers a detailed explanation of how the Main Street approach works.
  • Incorporate the organization: Determine which organizational model will work best. If you plan to incorporate as a nonprofit organization, get an application from the IRS website ( to obtain tax-exempt status. If you decide on another organizational model, contact the appropriate city agency or organization to begin discussions. Work with an attorney, if possible, to write by-laws and articles of incorporation and file them with the appropriate state agency. Sample by-laws can be found in this website's Resources section. Contact your city about regulations, business licenses, and/or any fees. Select an address or set up a post office box for mail deliveries, and choose a contact person for phone communications.
  • Recruit board members and develop committees: Learn more about structuring a Main Street program's board and committees in the Main Street Board Members Handbook. Recruit board members from your working group or elsewhere to lead the organization, and draw upon enthusiastic individuals from your community meetings to serve on committees. Establish board and committee roles, including board president, officers, and committee chairs.
  • Visit another community: With your board and committee members or working group, take a field trip to other downtowns or commercial districts to meet with peers, hear about lessons learned, and see how your commercial district compares.
  • Tap into the Network: Join the National Main Street Network, which will bring you our weekly e-newsletter, Main Street Weekly, full of news and ideas; access to the member-only Solution Center; and the Main Street List Serve, a forum for discussion among revitalization peers.
  • Draft a budget: Draw up a budget that corresponds with your plans. Decide if you can afford to hire a program director, or more importantly, if you can afford not to. Read about staff, budget structures, and potential funding sources in the Main Street Board Members Handbook and Revitalizing Main Street. Look at sample budgets from other Main Street communities with the same size population in our online Resources section. Talk with other community entities about financial support.
  • Develop job descriptions for board members, officers, committee chairs, committee members, and staff. Descriptions can be found in the Main Street Board Members Handbook and Committee Member Handbooks (Design, Promotion, Economic Vitality, and Organization). Other Main Street organizations can also provide examples.
  • Train and inform participants: Educate your board and committee members. Use slide shows or PowerPoint presentations. Distribute copies of the Center's Committee Member Handbooks. Tour the neighborhood with all board and committee members to inspect the district and get to know it well.
  • Develop a fund-raising plan: Draw up a plan outlining financial support for the program. Remember those stakeholders you contacted early on in the process? Now you will need to work with them as potential supporters. Funds should come from a diverse range of sources, not just one entity, to ensure financial security. Sources include local government, large and small businesses, membership programs, fund raising, community groups, earned income, corporate sponsors, and foundation donations.
  • Develop a work plan that includes a vision for the district, a mission statement, and a set of goals, both long and short term. Don't overwhelm your first year's work plan with too many projects; prioritize your activities by choosing projects that are easy to accomplish as well as those that can have visible impact while you are building capacity. More information on how and why to do work planning can be found in the Main Street Board Members Handbook as well as Revitalizing Main Street.
  • Schedule regular meetings with board members and committees, as well as with stakeholders and partners.
  • Recruit volunteers for key projects, events, and activities; create a volunteer file and develop a volunteer recognition system.
  • Promote the program: Use a variety of public relations tools, including social media, brochures, newsletters, article placement, and website to get the word out. Develop a media list for press releases.
  • Take inventory of what you have: Identify economic development and historic preservation resources in your community. Inventory the district's buildings, businesses, parking, etc., including photos.
  • Collect information: Begin to build your own clearinghouse of resource materials by collecting website addresses, articles, books, presentations, sample documents, and samples of marketing materials. What you don't use now you eventually will. Join and use the Main Street List Serve, (a benefit of National Main Street Center Membership), to connect with other Main Street program directors, board members, and volunteers and learn about their challenges and solutions. Use this website's Resources section to research sample documents and past articles from Main Street News to build your files. Identify existing events and collect information on past promotional activities. Collect and review any studies, market analysis, or master plans that have been done.