The Power of Main Street: Saving Communities, Changing Lives
By Andrea L. Dono | Online Only | March 23, 2010
When it comes to Main Street, we talk about the numbers a lot – how many jobs were created, how many volunteers participate in the revitalization, how much public and private money was leveraged. And for good reason – the numbers are impressive, the depth of our reach is broad, and the work we do transforms the American landscape.
But the power of Main Street is more than that.
It changes lives. It provides a calling. Ron Frantz, Oklahoma Main Street Architect, read about Main Street in a historic preservation magazine while he was a college student in 1977. He said he knew right away that "this is what I wanted to do… for life." After graduation, Ron pieced together work in an economically depressed Oklahoma while waiting for the program to come to the state and hoping he could become a part of it.
Five years later, Ron got his wish. "Main Street has been very, very good to me," he says. "Since then, I've been fortunate enough to be involved with Certification Institute for 20 years. I've written articles and contributed to publications. I've worked in about 20 other states. I feel so very lucky. Wow, the Power of Main Street – one can really fulfill dreams within the network."
In our Annual Main Street Trends Survey, we asked how Main Street has changed your life. I lost count of the number of instances where people said they loved their job. They love walking down the street and greeting most people they meet by name. Many people say they feel empowered because they've witnessed how grassroots organizations truly make things happen.
Personal satisfaction was another theme. As Penny Parsekian from New London Main Street in Connecticut says, "I didn't know I had the capacity to work this hard, nor that this almost endless hard work could bring such satisfaction."
Many folks said they really treasured being part of something bigger. They feel an incredible sense of fulfillment when they see the community coming together, new partners collaborating, and people whose lives they've touched smiling. They are finding that Main Street is a great career path for them. As one person put it, "I've gone from a volunteer to an organization committee chair to a Main Street director."
Julie Markowitz of the Staunton Downtown Development Association in Virginia brings up professional development. "I am always learning and growing in my job and I love helping my community and my entrepreneurs. The recognition and the educational and networking opportunities I can access through the Virginia Main Street Program, the National Main Street listserve, and my peer group are inspirational and truly helpful. I'm proud of my community, my downtown, my city government and what we have achieved as a Main Street community – beautiful, historic Downtown Staunton, Virginia!"
Another person described a move from a national role at a major corporation to "retirement" at the local Main Street office, while someone else mentioned going from a full-time accountant to a full-time Main Streeter: "[Main Street] became the one thing I was really enjoying in my life, so a few years later I quit my accounting career to dedicate myself to this community and downtown revitalization."
"Over the 25 years that I have been involved with Main Street," says Cindi Fargo of the Downtown Las Cruces Partnership in New Mexico, "the work has shaped my life. Great diversity of strength is required in the successful management of a downtown revitalization program. Helping a community find its path to revitalization; being instrumental as the community learns,bringing new energy, life, people and investment to the downtown; and finally seeing the changes occur brings great satisfaction to me as a professional. As a person, I believe nothing happens by accident, and I know that Main Street was my destiny."
Some people have revitalization backgrounds but were floored by the power of Main Street to fight the apathy of city hall or to reinvigorate a tired town that had run out of options. Others come from a preservation background and have been impressed by Main Street's power to "bring preservation through the back door" – which was the original intent of the program.
"I come from a historic preservation background, and I love seeing how Main Streets is such a holistic approach. We help in so many ways, but in the end – everything we do is about preservation. If businesses are successful, the area attractive, and visitors pleased – then we are saving our historic neighborhood business districts," says Katie Reed of Allston Village in Boston. "This is the best historic preservation program out there – let's not put things in a museum and show what we had, let's watch the area evolve and allow our historic structures to prove their worth in our modern day."
Others commented that Main Street is not just a profession, but a passion. "I cannot go on a vacation without taking photos of neat signs, parking arrangements, unique building facades, or great flower displays," says Ruth Taylor of Lisbon Main Street in New Hampshire.
Many people said a huge part of the power of Main Street is the people. Whether they are dedicated volunteers, friendly business owners, and community partners on the local level; hardworking and helpful staff at the coordinating level; the camaraderie of list serve posters; or the togetherness of the National Main Streets Conference – Main Streeters love and appreciate their supportive colleagues. (And we appreciate the shout-outs the National Trust Main Street Center got for the information, expertise, and trainings we offer!)
"The National Main Street Conferences have been a great place to get ideas from people in other states that you can use in your own town," says Mary Jo Jablonski of the Elkton Alliance in Maryland. "It is also a great feeling to know that you are not alone when it comes to trying to make your downtown a success."
Of course, a few people did mention some grey hairs, frustration, and insomnia. But the consensus is that their line of work is a labor of love and the power of Main Street is evident in their everyday lives when they look in the mirror and when they look out the window.
Want to share your experience? Come to the National Main Streets Conference in Oklahoma City, May 2-5, 2010, and network with colleagues who are just as passionate about Main Street as you are.
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