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Walmart Coming to a Main Street Near You?

Among planning wonks, the emerging big-box store trend of smaller, multi-level urban store formats has generated a lot of buzz, which Doug Loescher mentioned in his Director’s column. Walmart’s Express format will debut in Gentry, Arkansas, (population a little over 3,000) and will be one-tenth the size of the supercenter format — that’s 14,400 square feet. Building permits show the Express stores will be smaller concrete boxes with metal roofs located on five-acre lots with only 75 parking spaces. What? Did you think they’d be rehabbing existing buildings?

This news comes on the heels of a recent Urban Land Institute (ULI) factoid that cites 400 big-box stores sit vacant on the commercial strip. In “The Future of the Strip,” Edward T. McMahon points out that from 1960 to 2000 there was an almost tenfold increase in U.S. retail space, from four to 38 square feet per person. While retail space was growing five to six times faster than retail sales, says McMahon, the recession issued a correction that is creating a lot of vacancies and new conundrums surrounding what to do with the land. ULI speculates that these commercial voids could be turned into new, walkable lifestyle centers in our suburbs.

So, now people are worried about revitalizing the strip? Seems like we could have avoided all of this by focusing investment in our existing communities in the first place, but why beat a dead horse?

I’m not saying these new Express formats won’t create new jobs in new places. But now might be a good time to point out that, according to the February ADP, small businesses with fewer than 50 employees have created an average of 100,000 new jobs in each of the previous three months, accounting for 45 percent of all new jobs. So, it makes sense that our municipalities spend some time and money on supporting local small businesses, right? Hello? Is this thing on?

Micro-volunteering

Micro-volunteering is another emerging trend. People can access single volunteer projects or tasks online or on their smart phones. Taking a cue from those micro-investing/micro-lending sites (like Kiva.org, DonorsChoose, and GlobalGiving), a group of social media do-gooders started “The Extraordinaries” movement a few years ago to bring this idea to volunteerism. The concept is you put a project online and ask for help. I can see both sides of micro-volunteering — working with people you don’t know, whose skills you don’t know, can be unpredictable for sure. But I wanted to plant this seed in case it sparks new volunteerism models in your creative minds. To see this in action, check out www.sparked.com.

Tax Credits Revitalize Communities

What do high-paying jobs, billions in private investment, and historic buildings have in common? Together, they are revitalizing communities all across America. Historic rehabilitation creates thousands of local, high-paying, high-skilled jobs every year. According to research conducted by Rutgers University’s Center for Urban Policy Research in 2009 and 2010, historic rehabilitation created more than 145,000 new jobs. Over the 30-year life of the program, 2 million jobs have been created.

  • The Historic Tax Credit leverages private investment five times the cost of the program. For every dollar in Historic Tax Credits, five dollars in private investment is leveraged. Taken over the life of the program, the Historic Tax Credit is responsible for $90.4 billion in new investment in our urban and rural communities.
  • Historic preservation stimulates the local economy. Over three-quarters of the economic benefits generated by rehabilitation remains in the local communities and states where the projects are located. This reflects the fact that labor and materials for historic rehabilitations tend to be hired or purchased locally.
  • Rehabilitation of historic buildings “primes the economic pump.” A million dollars invested in historic rehabilitation produces markedly better economic impact in terms of jobs; wages; and federal, state, and local taxes than a similar investment in new construction, highways, manufacturing, agriculture, and telecommunication. 1
  • Historic Tax Credits drive investment to low-income neighborhoods. Since 2002, about two-thirds of all historic tax credit projects have been located in neighborhoods with family incomes at or below 80 percent of the area median.2 This new investment can start a cycle of economic revitalization; it encourages additional investments, raises property values, and creates a safer and more secure environment.
  • This is a government program that more than pays for itself. The cumulative, 32-year, $17.5 billion cost of the program is more than offset by the $22.3 billion in federal taxes these projects have generated.
  • Historic rehabilitation is green. The rehabilitation of historic and older buildings reduces waste and saves energy while it preserves our cultural heritage. A historic rehabilitation recycles existing materials and utilizes existing road, utility, and transit infrastructure. Reusing a 5,000-square-foot building saves the carbon consumed by 85 homes in one year. Reusing a 100,000-square-foot building saves the equivalent of the carbon emitted by nearly 1,600 homes annually.3

And the Historic Tax Credit can do more! Legislation based on the Community Revitalization and Restoration Act will soon be reintroduced in the 112th Congress and will make the Historic Tax Credit an even more powerful economic engine. The legislative changes will modernize the Historic Tax Credit, generate more new jobs and investment on Main Street, and incentivize energy efficiency in older commercial buildings.

Around the Network

Nebraska Main Street recently paired University of Nebraska-Lincoln students with York Main Street to see how far $25 could go in enlivening a vacant storefront window downtown.

Main Street committee members watched student presentations and then selected the winning team to transform the former Sterling building, which had previously housed a shoe store. The project gave the students a lesson in Main Street revitalization and an opportunity to be creative. Their project, in turn, helped folks in York see opportunity instead of just a vacancy.

Boonton, N.J., has a win to share — blocking NJ Transit’s plan to install a huge electronic billboard on the tree-covered hillside at the town’s interstate gateway. Unsure whether Boonton Main Street (BMS) could legally lobby the transit authority, members of the organization banded together in a four-week fight to prevent this blemish on their landscape.

Harold Johnson, BMS president, told me that public utilities in New Jersey are permitted to put up billboards on their right-of-way property. The utility is not required to gain permission, but only to inform the municipality’s planning board of its intent and is exempt from local ordinances that limit such advertising and signage. While billboards have been put up many times in commercial and industrial zones, this sign was the first to be placed in a rural area.

Dave Yorkston, a founding volunteer of BMS, saw the legal notice for a planning board hearing in the regional daily newspaper in late January. He instantly emailed his network, which included a local alderman who then notified the mayor. Using Photoshop, Johnson created before-and-after images to show how the sign would mar the landscape.

Boonton’s mayor promptly requested assistance from two state assemblymen and a state senator who is a town resident and former mayor. They wrote letters asking the executive director of NJ Transit to reconsider the plan and to consult with the mayor and municipal officials before taking further action.

Residents, urged by the growing unofficial ad-hoc community network, contacted their state officials as well. One resident went door-to-door with printed notices to alert neighbors and residents across the highway about the plans. People driven to speak out against the sign attended a town hall meeting with Governor Chris Christie, a Board of Freeholders meeting, and a town hall meeting with Representative Rodney Frelighuysen.

The quick-moving team was able to educate the public, inspire them to action, and connect with public officials who have influence. Media coverage, too, was consistent and helpful in tracking the issue — including the transit authority’s decision to erect the billboard. While the law remains on the books for now, Assemblyman DeCroce has introduced legislation to make utilities comply with local ordinances.

Planning for the 2011 National Main Streets Conference in Des Moines this May is in full swing, so I have been thinking a lot about Iowa towns. Iowa Main Street handed out some cool awards last fall, so let’s look at some of their great ideas.

Colfax, Iowa, a town of 2,223, wanted to do something more than using a boring letter to make “the ask.” The program launched the Take Pride Where You Reside campaign, which featured a game-themed fund-raising package: Connect Four explained the Main Street Four-Point Approach®; a Clue evidence envelope revealed the benefits of the Main Street program and its economic impact stats; Bingo cards highlighted Main Street and Colfax facts; and Main Street Jeopardy gave 15 answers to Main Street questions. Volunteers put the personal touch on the campaign by hand delivering each package. With upfront costs totaling $602, Colfax brought in three-year pledged income surpassing $181,000.

Judy Combs, the chair of the Main Street Organization Committee in Bloomfield, Iowa, was inspired by the 2008 National Main Streets Conference to create a fund-raising project called Join Hands and Strengthen the Main Street Chain. Volunteers turned $500 into $12,420 by creating “investment bags” decorated with paper chains and delivering them to targeted potential individual, business, and corporate supporters to get them to support the Main Street chain. Each bag contained an LED light bulb representing Bloomfield Main Street’s bright ideas; a bag of peanuts reminding people that “no idea is too nutty”; a mirror with the question “Are you looking at a 2009 volunteer?”; a (chocolate) gold brick to encourage financial support; and an investment form so people could donate to the organization easily.

Bloomfield Main Street used this piece not only as a fund raiser during a tough economic time when several downtown businesses were closing, but also as an image-development piece for the organization. While volunteers had to take a lot of time returning to establishments when the owner was in, they felt the personal interaction, often with new business people, was worth the effort.

Bloomfield has some other cool things going on as well. Its website features a Real Estate Hotlist that has attractive “headshots” of available properties, along with key information (including real estate agent info) so anyone looking for a property can figure out if what’s available is a good fit. And ever resourceful, the group has a wish list on the website’s homepage that asks supporters to help them save money by donating specific items, from business gift certificates for giveaways to snow shovels.

As we move into spring, let’s not forget about planning for holiday promotions next winter. The Retail Committee in Osceola, Iowa, staged a promotion called Let’s Wine about Winter. Gathering in the town square, Southern Hills Winery and 18 businesses invited participants to sample locally produced wine, beer, and soda and check out local merchandise. A neat twist to this event was getting owners of vacant buildings to open their space up to five of the home-based business participants so they could show off their wares.

New Insurance Benefits for Main Street Network Members

Two changes at the National Trust Insurance Services, LLC (NTIS), an affiliated entity of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, bring exciting perks and new insurance options to your Main Street organization.

First, NTIS recently partnered with two new insurance companies to provide better solutions for all of the exposures that your program faces, specifically special events, liquor liability, and Directors and Officer’s coverage. Starting May 1, enhanced coverage and even more competitive pricing (read: lower premiums) will be available to you.

Secondly, a brand new offer — one that you have been asking for — is the availability of health, dental, life, and disability insurance. NTIS can now give you competitive quotes on these coverages, as well as help you navigate the often-confusing market of health insurance. This coverage is available for employees and volunteers of your Main Street organization. Check it out for yourself and get an online quote at www.powerselect.net.

These insurance benefits are available to all Main Street Network members, including current NTIS clients. Contact NTIS for more information at 866-269-0944 or http://www.nationaltrust-insurance.org/ or visit the NTlS booth at the National Main Street Conference in Des Moines, Iowa.