The State of Main Street - 2010

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This is a summary of the National Trust Main Street Center Trends Report presentation at the 2010 National Main Streets Conference.

What is the power of Main Street? Billions of dollars in reinvestment, thousands of volunteer hours, hundreds of thousands of new jobs and new businesses, and thousands of revitalized communities …real places with real people.

Preservation-based economic development is not only essential to the success of Main Street; it is connected to issues now in the national spotlight: sustainability; smart growth; diversity; buy local campaigns; independent business startups; and job creation.

But above all else, Main Street’s greatest asset is that it is real. It is authentic. As author Sharon Zukin puts it in her book, Naked City: “Authenticity is not a stage set of historic buildings; it’s a continuous process of living and working, a gradual buildup of everyday experience, the expectations that neighbors and buildings … here today will be here tomorrow.”

The reason why our neighbors and treasured buildings will be here tomorrow is because of the dedication of thousands of Main Street managers and volunteers in Main Street communities throughout the nation.

The 2010 National Main Street Trends Survey conducted this past winter shows that the national economy is still struggling. Economic forecasters predict that new construction will remain low and that the commercial real estate market will suffer continuing declines, with property values for retail and office properties dropping by as much as 50 percent. Unemployment is expected to remain at nearly 10 percent for most of 2010; and small businesses, which number more than 27 million, are facing fewer lending options as credit card companies tighten their lending practices.

But do tough times for the national economy spell tough times for our Main Streets as well? Not always says our annual survey of designated Main Street Network programs.

Main Streets on the Rise?

First, the updated National Reinvestments Statistics for the 2,000+ programs launched since 1980 are as impressive as ever:

•  $48.9 billion investment

•  94,176 businesses

•  417,919 jobs

•  214,263 building rehabs

But the bigger story is in the year-to-year comparisons. Main Street districts added more businesses in the last year than in any year since 2005. More than 80 percent of our survey respondents reported a trend of more “mom & pop” or independent businesses opening on Main Street. And the job picture was similar. To cite a few examples:

•  Philadelphia’s East Passyunk Avenue Main Street district has experienced tremendous business and job growth in the last 15 months − 17 new businesses and 69 new jobs − while the vacancy rate halved to 6 percent.

•  Across the nation, in Washington State, Ellensburg saw 20 new businesses open in 2009 despite the economic downturn, and many of the downtown’s merchants reported holiday sales increases of 25 percent over last year.

While new construction showed a substantial dip in 2009, down from a boom peak in Main Street communities in 2008, public and private investment was up, nearly matching the record numbers of 2007. Local stories offer some clues.

DIY Business Development

The current economic climate might not seem ideal for opening a grocery store, but a group of residents in Burlington, North Carolina − a town that has seen its fair share of unemployment and company closures over the years − would beg to disagree. They believe this is exactly the time to support local, sustainable businesses that can breathe life back into our cities. That’s the inspiration behind Company Shops Market − a locally owned co-operative that is setting out to refurbish an old A & P grocery and offer organic and sustainably produced food from the area’s farmers.

The renovation and opening of the market, a $2 million project, will be financed by a combination of citizen ownerships and conventional financing. Financing milestones include a $1.1 million loan from Fidelity Bank, a local lending institution, and a grant of nearly $300,000 from the state’s Main Street Solutions Fund. Using both events and social media outreach, Company Shops Market has attracted more than 1,600 owners over the past year, 80 percent of its goal of 2,000 by opening day. Ultimately though, it won’t be the structural advantages or disadvantages of co-ops like Company Shops that keep them afloat but the will and commitment of members of the local community, who are filling the development gap with their own investments.

Continuing this trend, the Main Street program in Waterville, Maine, opened its own business − Barrels Community Market, which carries locally produced foods and goods. Staffed by two full-time employees and 25 volunteers, the market feature products from about 200 vendors located within a 20-mile radius of town.

In Salem, New Jersey, the local Main Street program, Stand Up for Salem, went one step further and became the city’s official nonprofit developer. The group just completed the Finlaw Building project − a $22 million rehab and new parking garage − that will house the county’s DMV offices and other state offices.

In another novel approach to reinvestment, Main Street Wooster’s Economic Restructuring Committee had a long wish list of businesses they wanted to bring to the Ohio community. But instead of waiting for their dream businesses to arrive, the committee matched investors with local entrepreneurs who had business plans that fit their list. Now, City Square Steakhouse and eight lofts occupy the downtown’s newly rehabbed Germania Hall along with the SoMarWine Cellars. The next businesses in the works are a fitness center and boutique hotel.

Burlington, Iowa, has an equally innovative approach to business recruitment. In collaboration with its Small Business Development Center (SBDC), the community launched a “Writing Your Business Plan” contest, which reviews business plans and offers advice for entrepreneurs. A volunteer review panel examines business plans and offers advice for improvement before entrepreneurs give a 15-minute pitch about their business idea. Winners get a start-up grant and a $100/month rental subsidy if they open a business downtown. Six people have done so since 2008 and four more are expected in 2010.

The Power of Partnerships

Partners are helping Main Street programs explore new projects and leverage much-needed resources. “All of our work is collaborative – we stand on each other’s shoulders to leverage one another’s missions,” says Ohio’s Lakewood Alive team.

Many communities are reporting that the recession has changed the attitudes of members of the business community: “Using market research techniques learned from Main Street guidebooks, our private [sector] and business communities have come together with more enthusiasm and cooperation than they have had in a considerable amount of time,” says Ruth Taylor, CMSM, executive director of Lisbon (New Hampshire) Main Street.

The folks at Main Street Tehachapi in California concur. “Now more than ever, we are seeing business owners uncross their arms and embrace Main Street ideas,” says Michelle Vance, the program’s executive director. She points out that now is the time to spread the word about Main Street while people are listening. “Attendance at our trainings has doubled and they are willing to really listen and apply what they have learned.”

When citing the number of community events produced in partnership with local business owners, one Main Street manager noted that they help foster relationships among residents and business owners. “It is always nice to do business with a friend.”

Main Street partnerships extend far beyond the local business community, however, embracing organizations ranging from local schools to national corporations.

Working with the local high school’s Future Business Leaders of America, the Main Street program in Emporia, Kansas, surveyed teenagers to see what kinds of retail, dining, and entertainment they would support in the city. Within three months, local businesses added products and services to respond to young people’s needs.

For the Civil War Sesquicentennial, the BID in West Chester, Pennsylvania, is working with its local African American community, the Pennsylvania Downtown Center, and the Pennsylvania Cultural & Heritage Tourism Department to erect a new monument to the African American Civil War soldiers from West Chester. It will replace a small, forgotten stone that commemorates African American contributions – showing that Main Street revitalization is about heritage, people, and inclusion.

In Arkansas, Main Street Russellville found that persistence pays off when trying to secure a large national corporation’s support. It took many asks, but eventually Coca-Cola® agreed to an in-kind sponsorship of the district’s signature spring fund raiser and fall chili cook-off.

The Downtown Action Team in Albuquerque is working with the University of New Mexico’s Sustainability Studies Program and Consolidated Solar Technologies to develop a solar-powered kiosk for the downtown farmers’ market. Called S.P.I.K.E. (Solar Power Integrated Kiosk Experience), it will simultaneously power the market by providing electrical outlets for vendors, live music, and credit card transactions, as well as educate the public on the diverse applications for solar power.

Preservationists in Arkansas worked for 15 years to get a state historic preservation tax credit, which finally went into effect in July 2009. Last year also saw a win in the Sunshine State where the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation proved to be a powerful partner for local Main Street programs by not only preserving funds for the State Historic Preservation Office, which includes Florida Main Street, but actually increasing funding for the Main Street program.

Main Street Iowa (MSI) offers another success story. Consistent advocacy work with the Iowa legislature over the past 10 years has brought the program seven HUD awards for bricks-and-mortar projects in Iowa Main Streets. More than $34 million has been invested in 33 MSI communities through a combination of HUD funds and local public/private investment. Most recently, the legislature appropriated $14 million for bricks-and-mortar projects, bringing Main Street Iowa more preservation money in 2010/2011, during a recession no less, than it has had in its entire 24-year history.

This year’s Trends Survey shows that despite tough times, Main Streets are not only persevering but thriving with DIY creativity and innovative strategies as they work to build the next economy.

The Power of People 
By Andrea L. Dono

The power of Main Street is perhaps best expressed by the people who make it happen, whose lives are changed as they change their world. In Poteau, Oklahoma, for example, the Main Street manager announced at the end of the annual awards banquet this past spring that everyone in the room had become her friends and her family. She reminded them that she had gotten engaged last year and that she couldn’t think of anyone she wanted to share her wedding day with more than her Main Street family. She then invited her fiancé and minister to come up from the audience and got married on the spot! No one knew it was going to happen and there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.

We know that it takes a cadre of volunteers, partners, and loyal customers to make Main Street districts strong. But it also takes incredibly dedicated and hardworking Main Street executive directors and staff members. In April, San Diego Metropolitan magazine ran a profile on the executive director of North Park Main Street, Liz Studebaker. It painted a bleak picture of the job for which she interviewed in 2007. The board president at the time said, “Liz, we have no money, no prospects, we may not even be here in a year. Your job is to save our butts. Oh, and by the way, you have to work day and night, with few benefits and very little money, with not much hope for renewal of your contract. Her reply was, ‘Fine, I can do that.’” Like so many Main Street directors, Liz rose to the challenge and earned a reputation among area stakeholders for running one of the best business improvement districts (BID) in San Diego. The district is not only better than ever; it’s bigger than ever. BID members voted to expand the district’s boundaries and double its business membership to 600.

The do-it-yourself nature of Main Street revitalization also has a way of empowering people. In Lenoir, North Carolina, two Main Street board members (Joe Gibbons and Ron Stilwell) were elected to city council. They both emphasized their support of downtown revitalization during their campaigns.

On a smaller scale, Rice Lake, Wisconsin, has a local community member who has been branded a Main Street volunteer for life. Shelly Schoening, who served on various committees and on the Main Street board, earned the title “Petunia Princess” for her hard work on the downtown’s flower basket beautification project. She even went so far as to get a petunia tattooed on her shoulder. More importantly, her civic engagement and leadership opportunities grew during her 10 years as a volunteer with Rice Lake Main Street. Shelly has gained the confidence to take on public-speaking roles and organized a fund raiser for cancer survivors that raised tens of thousands of dollars.

Sometimes the power of Main Street is not just about the people, but about their pets as well. In Ohio, Lakewood Alive's Halloween event, the Spooky Pooch Parade, created such a buzz online that CNN picked up the story. The group annually invites parade marchers and their pets – 500 people and 200 dogs participated in the 2009 event – to strut their stuff throughout the historic downtown and compete for prestigious awards like "Spookiest Pooch" and "Best Adult and Dog Team." The organization only promoted the event online, using its e-newsletter, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube videos from previous years, and the social media channels and online calendars of its various Ohio partners.