Director's Column

The Next Chapter

It is a story familiar to many of you. Main Street, begun as a National Trust pilot program in three Midwest communities more than 30 years ago, takes hold in ways no one anticipated. Three decades later, more than 2,000 communities across the country have adopted Main Street’s tools of historic preservation and economic revitalization and used them to breathe new life into their historic downtowns.

But no program or community stands still and survives. The needs of cities and towns across America are changing and our network requires increasingly sophisticated responses to those challenges. While Main Street has now achieved mainstream success, we have heard from you that Main Street needs to evolve in order to remain a leading model for community revitalization in the 21st century. It needs to provide relevant, cutting-edge research and analysis to make the case for preservation-based economic development. After almost a year of study, we’ve made moves to the way we work that allows the Main Street program to flourish far into the future.

In June, our trustees approved a recommendation to transition the Main Street program to a new nonprofit subsidiary of the National Trust—a move that will happen early next year. We believe new growth for Main Street will be best accomplished under the direction of a talented, high-performance subsidiary board and senior management focused solely on enriching Main Street and the offerings we provide to you. All of us who care about the work you do are excited that the National Trust can continue to support Main Street with the focus it needs to reach new levels of effectiveness.

Main Street is America’s most widely recognized model for revitalizing commercial districts, and its preservation ethos is what makes it unique. But if we forget about the history of our Main Streets—the sense of place and the buildings that ground us to that place—we become just another economic development program without the authentic, unique roots that so many in America seek today.

To keep that from occurring, we will focus on the ability of Main Street to use the power of place as a connection with issues Americans face today—especially environmental and economic sustainability. Hallmarks of sustainable communities will be familiar to Main Streeters because they are the hallmarks of your communities: smart land use; walkability; affordable housing options; good jobs; and low-carbon-emitting, green buildings. The renewed Main Street should once again lead the way in illustrating that a preservation-based economic development program can be a powerful strategy for rejuvenating and sustaining communities.

Leadership requires that we provide persuasive information you can use in your states and communities, like a recently released study from the Trust’s Preservation Green Lab which examines the carbon benefits of building reuse versus those of new construction. This groundbreaking, independent study concludes that, when comparing buildings of equivalent size and function, building reuse almost always offers environmental savings over demolition and new construction. If Americans are looking to reduce their impact on the environment, then preservation is an under-the-radar, yet highly effective strategy. And, of course, the reuse of our older and historic buildings for new commercial use is what Main Street is all about.

Sustainable communities are not solely defined by green environmental practices—reusing existing buildings is good for the economy as well. The Center for Urban Policy Research at Rutgers University released the first independent study of the economic impacts of preservation in 2010, with annual updates the past two years. They found that rehabbing old buildings has more impact on the economy than the same size investment in the construction of new buildings. Rutgers also found that historic rehabilitation creates tens of thousands of local, high-paying, high-skilled jobs every year all across the nation, and the vast majority of that investment stays in the local community. Through studies such as those provided by the Preservation Green Lab and Rutgers, the people of Main Street are gaining the tools to make the strong case that preservation-based economic development creates jobs, stimulates our economy, and generates revenue for both the public and private sectors.

Through the years, Main Street has demonstrated an ability to remain relevant in the face of change. Moving into our next chapter at the National Trust, we pledge to continue to lead the Main Street network in demonstrating how preservation-based economic development will create unique, authentic, vibrant communities for 21st-century America.