Director's Column

From Stubborn Vacancy...To Overnight Success

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All it takes are a few dark storefronts to give your street a bad rap. You can have a hundred occupancies filling 98 percent of your downtown buildings, but just a few empty windows on a key downtown corner can send a subtle yet powerfully negative message to the public: STAY AWAY.

In some downtowns, vacancies are sporadic and short-lived − a product of a stubborn recession that has been tough on older small businesses, but short on new entrepreneurs. In other city centers, vacant storefronts are just the first floor of entirely empty buildings that, so far, have been too large or too difficult to redevelop. These “white elephants” stall the momentum of progress in otherwise successful districts. Yet years of redevelopment strategies have proven that there is no one magic bullet to wipe our downtowns clean of vacancies, and given the nation’s tough economic times, “problem real estate” has become even more pervasive.

This issue of Main Street NOW explores a variety of tools and creative approaches to change the perception – if not reality – of vacant properties, with tried-and-true preservation tools and new insights from the field. In our lead article, Wisconsin Main Street architect Joe Lawniczak explores the economic drivers of vacant commercial properties, offering a rationale for preservation, along with a menu of “carrots and sticks” for property owners that can create a climate for occupancy and redevelopment. 

And speaking of “sticks,” small-town Main Streets have too often gotten the short end of one, when it comes to the federal historic tax credit. As one of the biggest “carrots” out there for building rehabs, this otherwise powerful economic engine for preservation and revitalization in larger cities and urban areas has too often bypassed our rural commercial districts. In an article by National Trust staffer Erica Stewart, we look at how Main Street organizations, armed with better information and innovative strategies, are making tax credits a key tool in their campaign against vacant buildings. 

Even more “sticks” can be found in a new publication by the National Trust on successful regulatory approaches to “demolition by neglect.” See our excerpt from this valuable publication on page 31. And if regulations and redevelopment aren’t realistic ways to rid your district of vacant storefronts this year, you may find inspiration in “A New Take On Pop-Up Storefronts” by Cambridge. Maryland, Main Street Manager Jim Duffy. This year, a creative contest called the Holiday Pop Up Project gave would-be entrepreneurs a chance to try out new retail concepts in empty buildings rent-free during the 2010 holiday season!

So while vacancies may be no stranger to Main Street in the past several years, we hope that these articles illustrate how we can change this dynamic and create new momentum, with big projects that may be years in the making, and small success stories that can “pop-up” overnight.