Director's Column

All Innovation Is Local

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The other day, one of our Main Street coordinators mentioned on a listserve e-mail how entitlement cities in his state have used Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) for facade renovation projects because—thanks to their advocacy in changing the regulations—his state has a category for innovative projects and specifically lists downtown revitalization as innovative. As he put it: “I’m not sure the process is necessarily innovative any longer, but that’s just semantics I suppose.” While his comment was actually about his state’s CDBG process, it could just as easily have been about the Main Street Approach to downtown revitalization, in general.

So if “innovation” is essential to our growth and success—as virtually every politician and pundit these days seems to say—then what exactly does innovation mean in our line of work? 

Dictionary definitions of “innovation” are rather humble: “to improve upon something established”; “to introduce something new.” Because the Main Street Approach has been around for 30 years, it would seem to fail these tests, as it has long been “established” as a methodology, and is not exactly “new.” And if the approach itself is no longer “innovative” in-and-of itself, is it still useful and relevant today?

Of course, we would emphatically say “YES” because—like politics—all innovation is local. And on the local level, the Main Street framework continues to breed new, innovative approaches to our most vexing problems.

Let’s tackle, for example, the national issue that affects nearly every historic Main Street from time to time: building demolitions. Despite national advocacy and some high-profile interventions, we continue to lose local assets every day, and at an alarming pace. Many take place in small towns that may not register on the national radar, but those historic buildings are just as essential to the life of that community as any other national landmark.

Can “innovation” change the course for these chunks of our heritage that lie on the chopping block? If so, those big ideas and bold actions are likely to come from the local level. In this issue of Main Street NOW, we showcase just such an innovation in Kingwood, West Virginia, a tiny town that has saved a handful of historic properties through real estate “flipping.” While this practice has developed a bad reputation in the private sector, this article shows how it can also serve a public good. 

As you read through this incredible story, you will likely agree: this is true “innovation.” It’s changing the way things are done, and introducing a Main Street practice that—for many towns—is entirely “new.” This is the genius of our network: brilliant innovation that can be shared from one community to another. We hope you find inspiration in these stories, and encourage you to share your innovations with us. Send them to mainstreet@nthp.org.