Of Grassroots and Social Media
By Andrea L. Dono | Online Only | March 3, 2010
Like finding coal in their Christmas stockings, three weeks before the new year, the Main Street revitalization community learned that Washington Governor Chris Gregoire's proposed budget would cut funding for the Washington State Main Street Program (WSMSP). The program had already been jeopardized during the 2009 budgeting process when its funds were slashed by 75 percent – leaving only one staff member to support more than 90 community revitalization programs. Zeroing out the budget this year would be its demise – leaving Washington Main Street communities in a lurch.
With no choice but to mobilize at the speed of light, the leaders of the local Main Street programs rallied quickly to assess the situation. Because the Washington State Main Street Program is housed in the state government, it is barred from lobbying on its own behalf, so the task of saving the program fell to the local programs. After a whirlwind of grassroots advocacy and a nonstop social media blitz, their efforts proved successful when the Main Street Bill passed the House in February and the Senate on March 2.
"The organizing effort behind the scenes was crazy," says Timothy Bishop, executive director of the Ellensburg Downtown Association and a member of the advocacy team. "We had to create an action plan between Christmas and New Year's. We had to contact our legislators during that critical holiday week and get a bill introduced in the House literally the first day of the session to save the program."
Since March 11, 2010, is the last day of the Washington State legislative session, the group couldn't wait until the first of the year to start an advocacy campaign; they had to act immediately. The leaders of the 11 local certified programs (see sidebar) had their first conference call on December 28 to create their plan. They assessed the key players, identified partners, built e-mail lists, created a Facebook advocacy page, and called their elected officials to see whose support they had and whose support they needed. They also made contact with their partners – the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation; The National Trust for Historic Preservation and Mary Thompson, a National Trust board member; and surprise partners, like the Association of Washington Businesses.
Formulating the Strategy
On the policy side, advocates were determined to get a bill introduced in both the Senate and the House on the opening day of the legislative session. Securing bipartisan support was an important goal, too. Representative Dean Takko (D) from the 19th district, introduced House Bill 2704 co-sponsored by Representative Bill Hinkle (R) from the 13th district, on January 11th. By week's end, Senator Steve Hobbs (D) from the 44th district had introduced Senate Companion Bill 6507 with co-sponsor Senator Janea Holmquist (R) from the 13th district.
The bill, which passed with a 91 to 7 vote in the House and a unanimous vote in the Senate, moved the Washington State Main Street Program into the state's Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation (DAHP).
Allyson Brooks, Ph.D., Washington's state historic preservation officer, calls the move a natural fit. "A lot of Main Street programs are housed in historic preservation offices. Historic preservation is economic development and there is a synchronicity between what Main Street does and what DAHP does – particularly with the historic tax credit incentive."
Cumulatively since 1991, Washington's local Main Street districts have generated more than $413 million in new private sector investment, 11,810 new jobs, and 3,721 new and expanded businesses. What's more, every $370 invested by the state into the WSMSP has yielded one new job in a local Main Street district. Every $1 invested by the State into the WSMSP has also yielded an average of $96 in private investment in a local Main Street district.
Statistics like these, statistics from the individual communities, and personal stories were sent to legislators and constituents as quickly as possible. The Facebook page facilitated this outreach. Advocacy team leaders encouraged people in their networks to become a fan of "Supporting Main Street in Washington State." They were up front about this being an advocacy page and for fans to look for calls to action, talking points, and updates.
Washington Main Street Communities
The viral nature of social media helped them grow a network of 500 supporters by January 13 – a number that exceeded 850 six weeks later. Facebook proved to be an important tool for reaching and engaging communities beyond the 11 designated Main Street programs. Because many of these "affiliate programs" don't have a formal Main Street organization or even a staff member or key contact, including them in the organizing process would have been difficult if not for social media.
This was particularly important because when the advocacy team looked at the map to find strong local Main Street managers in key legislative districts, they realized it didn't match up well. The Facebook fans in those key affiliate communities were critical in reaching out to residents who could contact key legislators.
Getting the Messaging Right
Advocate leaders quickly posted press releases and talking points on Facebook with action alerts calling upon fans throughout the state to contact their representatives. They desperately needed to show elected officials that the Washington State Main Street Program is a resource for 90 programs in 85 communities, not just the 11 certified communities.
The terrific speed of their advocacy efforts was matched only by their deliberate messaging strategy. "We worked with the Washington State Historic Trust and the National Trust Main Street Center to get the messaging right," explains Bishop. "We worked together to draft a press release that got the tonality right. We wanted to grab people's attention and spur them to action but we didn't want to cause a negative reaction. "
An early press release template created a unified message for all advocates to use. It discussed the issue, explained the Washington State Main Street Program's services, defended its impact through statewide reinvestment stats, and provided space for local programs to add their own quotes and successes in investment and job creation.
This strategy worked. Local newscasts, local newspapers, and community blogs across the state picked up the story. Advocates tracked media coverage by posting every media mention on the Facebook page. The message was consistent (verbatim, even, in some cases) in these stories: Main Street revitalization in Washington is effective and saving the state program is necessary.
It is important to note that Facebook was an advocacy tool for informing and mobilizing a grassroots network. The resulting phone calls and letters from constituents allowed supporters to tell their elected officials what Main Street means to them. In her letter to her senator, Jane Champion, a small business owner in Port Townsend, shared her experience as president of the local Main Street program. "I quickly realized the critical importance of the State Main Street Program's role in helping us maintain, strengthen, and revitalize our distinct physical, economic, historical, and cultural characteristics," she said. "Our community, and in particular, our wonderful historic district, depends on a healthy, thriving local economy and the Washington State Main Street Program has provided invaluable attention and resources toward these ongoing efforts."
The Power of Social Networking
The advocacy team used the Facebook page to house the movement's history and background information as well as to provide calls to action. In this vein, it is a simple tool for reporters to use because they can go to one place to see everything that is happening. Many members of the media are fans of the page or are fans of the pages of the local programs. Social media is making public relations and getting media coverage easier than ever. When local Main Street programs and supporters change their statuses about the advocacy effort or "tweet" (on Twitter) updates about the Main Street Bills, members of the media see it instantly.
"The way the local advocates have been using Facebook to get their message across and to connect with state legislators has been stunning," says Brooks. "It is a force that is bringing people together. I started using Facebook to connect with friends from 30 years ago and am amazed by its ability to improve real-time communication and to get people's attention. With e-mails, you just read them. But with Facebook, you make a social connection and it has made all the difference."
The Flexibility of Social Networking
Politics can sometimes become a numbers game, so empowering a large network of everyday citizens is an important resource for advocacy efforts. The Washington State Main Street advocacy effort has supporters all across the state, not just in one community. But timeliness is also a consideration.
The local Washington Main Street programs had to fight last year for their state program and had already laid some groundwork for building relationships with their legislators. While they didn't know if and when their program would be in trouble again, they knew they needed to invite officials to their business opening celebrations and keep them informed about their successes and their concerns. When they needed to shift gears into crisis mode, they were ready.
The lesson learned here? "Start early and don't wait to respond to crisis. You need to have the relationships in place and the capacity to act quickly," says Bishop. "You have to be organized but still flexible to act quickly to respond." The advocates also packed economic ammo – the dollar signs and statistics their revitalization programs have been collecting since the day they incorporated to show their effectiveness.
"If we had started the dialog about what Main Street is and what we do on the first day of the session, we never would have been able to get the bill drafted and presented so quickly," says Bishop. "We had to get in and out of committees quickly to be voted on by the end of the session. The cut off for the Senate's Ways and Means was Monday, February 28, and it votes on Friday, March 5. We would have missed our opportunity."
On Tuesday evening, March 2, the Senate passed the Main Street Bill with unanimous support. While the advocacy process and its wins thus far have proven to be amazing successes, the budget for the program remains uncertain in light of the state's $2.5 billion deficit, but the advocacy team doesn't plan to give up during the closing days of the 2010 legislative session.
"Passing this bill is important but voting on the budget is the last thing legislature does," says Bishop. "When the gavel drops, we either have a budget for Main Street or we don't."
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