El Reno, Oklahoma

Oklahoma | 2006 Great American Main Street Award® Winner | Posted: 6/5/2006

Founded in 1889, El Reno is the only city to be created by all three of the Oklahoma Land Runs. With a prime location at the junction of two historic highways, Route 66 and the Chisholm Trail, along with a train depot for the Rock Island Railroad in the downtown, the community thrived for nearly a century, as the railroad, oil, and agricultural industries flourished.

All that changed in 1980 when El Reno lost its largest employer, the Rock Island Railroad. More than 1,500 people, 15 percent of the town's population, were laid off. The oil boom carried the community along for a while, but when that went bust, along with a decline in the agricultural industry, El Reno fell on hard times.  Many businesses shut down or relocated, leaving little hope of recovery.

Further complicating the situation was El Reno's proximity to Oklahoma City. How could the downtown of this modest-sized community compete with the mega malls and discounters of a sprawling metropolis? After much consideration, the city chose to pursue revitalization of its historic commercial district through the Main Street program.

"It was a program created for the people," says Debbie Harrison, lifelong El Reno resident, vice mayor, and former Main Street manager. "And it is because of the people that El Reno has seen such phenomenal success in its downtown revitalization effort."

Partners for Success

In January 1988, El Reno submitted its application for Main Street designation to the Oklahoma Main Street Program. A volunteer committee had spent months working tirelessly to gain consensus and obtain community commitments for the program. El Reno was accepted into the state Main Street program and began building partnerships throughout the community.

Along with the city, which is a strong supporter of the program, supplying 24 percent of its budget, El Reno has forged a strong partnership with the chamber of commerce. In 1996, the two groups teamed up to share office space and collaborate on projects that serve their common goal – to create and sustain an economically viable commercial district. Over the past 10 years, the two groups have diligently worked to share resources and volunteers and serve as a one-stop shop for businesses, residents, and volunteers while still maintaining their separate identities.

The two organizations have "different programs of action," says El Reno Chamber of Commerce Director Karen Nix, "but working together on many projects and events has served to strengthen our main objective – to support our local businesses by providing a strong economic climate and community involvement."

"Partnerships and collaboration are two of the keys to a successful community," adds Harrison. Fifteen years ago, she recalls, groups such as the chamber of commerce, the historical society, and other preservation organizations viewed themselves as stand-alone entities. "Over the years," she says, "many 'turf' issues have been laid to rest and true partnerships and open communication now exist. The community has seen the example set by these organizations and everyone has benefited."

El Reno Main Street has not only developed cooperative partnerships with civic, tourism, and historic preservation organizations, it has worked to engage the full breadth of the community – from youth who work weekly to prison labor used to set up holiday decorations. In 2005, volunteers logged in more than 4,000 hours of service.

Festival Town

Selling a positive image of downtown encourages investment and boosts economic vitality. El Reno Main Street has worked diligently to create a potent mix of special, retail, and image-building events that generate enthusiasm and pride in the downtown. The program has also developed a comprehensive marketing campaign.

"The outcomes of these strategies are not always measurable," says El Reno Main Street Director Code Finnigan. "We know tax collections have increased…. That indicates confidence in the district. But the memories that are being created for our youth are not measurable. Their feelings about El Reno and downtown activities will be reflected in years to come."

Each year, El Reno Main Street hosts five special events that attract 38,000 visitors and provide 17 percent of its annual revenue. Its biggest event is the nationally recognized Fried Onion Burger Festival, which attracts nearly 25,000 people who salivate over the 750-pound burger and patronize downtown merchants who reported a 400 percent increase in sales during last year's event. Other special events include the Heritage and Arts Festival and the Halloween Spooktacular, which brings more than a thousand children and their families downtown to trick or treat.

"El Reno's special events are one of the main reasons young people want to return to their hometown after college," says Finnigan. "They have helped re-establish the historic commercial district as the social center of the community."

Burgeoning Business

Before the Main Street program began, El Reno's downtown had a 54 percent vacancy rate. Using its market analysis findings, the program focused its business recruitment efforts and helped prospective business owners identify suitable space, negotiate rents, and reduce their startup costs.

"New businesses are offering merchandise that is changing the shopping patterns of our citizens," says Debbie Harrison. "We are now seeing all age groups shop locally for their needs."

To ensure that new and old businesses get the assistance they need, Main Street has put together a wide range of activities. Through its weekly "Main Street Express" e-newsletters, El Reno Main Street informs merchants about pending changes in the commercial district; available assistance and incentives to help with building improvements; and upcoming consultations and seminars offered with its partner, the Canadian Valley Technology Center.

Main Street has also provided technical assistance to businesses through its "Mornings on Main Street"meet-ings and "Picnics in the Plaza" train-ings. Topics have included good window displays, appropriate lighting of inventory, marketing plans, and customer service.

Cooperative advertising is another area where Main Street's help has been invaluable. El Reno Main Street has organized cooperative advertising for many venues, including Oklahoma Today magazine, The Daily Oklahoman, and state travel publications. The program is currently working on an annual campaign that will advertise the district through all media.

In addition to advertising, El Reno Main Street works with its 41 retail businesses to host five retail promotions throughout the year. Top among these is the Spend Christmas at Home – Shop Downtown promotion through which customers are encouraged to shop downtown during the holidays and collect tickets to win $4,000 in Main Street Bucks which are then spent at participating businesses.

To date, El Reno Main Street's business recruitment and assistance efforts have reduced the downtown vacancy rate to 12 percent and brought 106 net new businesses and 240 net new jobs to the district.

Building a Lasting Legacy

El Reno's historic preservation ethic is evident in the rehabilitation of 109 historic buildings and 78 façades, totaling more than $4 million in private investment.

As in many other communities, El Reno property owners tried to "modernize" their buildings by hiding ornate façades with aluminum sheeting and covering upper-story windows with bricks and boards to make them more "energy efficient." Instead, such tactics only served to discourage new businesses and drive away customers.

The Main Street program has taken strong steps to encourage property owners to restore their building facades. Incentives include:

  • A paint incentive program through which corporate partner Gemini Industries pays property owners half of the paint cost if the owners obtain approval for the color scheme from the Main Street design committee. To date, more than 49 paint projects have been completed.
  • A low-interest loan program with MidFirst Bank, which has resulted in six façade improvements.

New infill development has also played a role in downtown's rebirth. Once home to El Reno's largest white elephant, which collapsed due to neglect, the main entrance to downtown now hosts an impressive new structure built by Canadian State Bank. At a cost of $1.2 million, the project is the largest private investment in the history of the downtown.

The collapse of a major building at the entryway to downtown has had a lasting impact on the community in other ways as well. The disaster, says Codie Finnigan, made people "realize it was everyone's responsibility to maintain and preserve buildings for future generations."

Moving Up

Upper-floor development, especially for housing, has been a major goal of El Reno Main Street. To promote interest in vacant second-story space, the program organized the Upper Story Tour event. This outreach effort led to development of five of the downtown's 15 vacant upper floors into housing and office space.

These renovations spurred interest among other property owners, and more projects followed. Today, the downtown has 118 upper-floor housing units, and Main Street is exploring the availability of U.S. Department of Agricul-ture upper-floor housing grants to encourage more residential development.

"The fact that El Reno is thriving today is a direct result of the community's dedication to its history and all the intangible qualities that make it unique. Community leaders could have let El Reno deteriorate ––  but instead, they breathed new life into this special town, and the result is a flourishing community that's become a favorite tourist destination." 

Richard Moe, president
National Trust for Historic Preservation

Adventures in History

El Reno's commitment to preservation extends beyond the built environment to the celebration of its history and culture.

To engender an awareness of heritage in young people, El Reno Main Street collaborated with the Canadian County Historical Society, the El Reno Public School System, Carnegie Library, Genealogy Society, and the City to produce "Adventures in History," during which 500 children spend one day living the life of a "turn-of-the-century" El Reno citizen. Another day is spent riding the town trolley and learning about historically significant buildings along the route. The project is now a permanent part of the fifth-grade class curriculum.

Getting Tourism on Track

The Heritage Express Trolley started out as a way to celebrate the town's railroad heritage and provide public transportation to get residents to patronize downtown businesses. Using $1.2 million in ISTEA funds, the city replaced the original trolley tracks in the downtown district. Another $200,000 from private and public funders was used to purchase and restore a 1924 trolley car to run on the tracks.

During the 18-month construction period, El Reno Main Street mitigated construction challenges for its merchants and their customers by organizing backdoor promotions, launching a public relations campaign to keep all stakeholders informed, and monitoring the safety of pedestrian walkways.

The Heritage Express Trolley began operations in 2001, 92 years after the original, to great acclaim. The only rail-based trolley in the state, this successful heritage tourism project attracts new visitors to El Reno's commercial district and its newly renovated train depot. Residents now use the trolley to shop at El Reno's specialty shops and then get a bite to eat at one of the dozen restaurants along its route. Currently, Main Street is using federal transportation and local tax-increment financing monies to complete streetscape improvements that will complement the new trolley line.

Since 1988, El Reno has leveraged $1.9 million in public investment and $7.5 million in private investment. Using the Main Street approach and building on incremental achievements, El Reno has laid the groundwork for future revitalization successes while celebrating its rich historic past.

And what words of wisdom would El Reno Main Street give other communities seeking to build a strong, long-term program? "Keep on keeping on!" says Codie Finnigan. "Letting people know what we do, why we do it, and how we do it is vital to sustaining our revitalization successes."

Revitalization Statistics

  • Year Formed: 1988
  • Budget: $104,000 (FY July 2005 to June 2006)
  • Total Businesses in District: 163
  • District Size: 22 square blocks
  • Housing in District: 118 units
  • Total Investment in Revitalization:
  • Public – $1.96 million; Private – $7.58 million
  • Net Jobs Created: 240
  • Net Businesses Created: 106
  • Building Projects: 109 historic rehabilitations; 78 façade improvements; 10 new construction projects; 5 infill construction projects