Soft Economy Creates Hard Challenges for Some Communities
By Andrea Dono
In November, the National Trust Main Street Center took the pulse of communities to gauge the economic health of commercial districts throughout the nation. We asked how the downturn of the national economy is affecting Main Street and what, if anything, is being done to counter negative impacts.
First, the good news. In a survey of 261 individuals in Main Street communities, 21 percent have not seen any significant business closures, reduction in sales, or stoppage of major development projects; 7 percent even reported a thriving business district. On the other end of the spectrum, however, 33 percent of the survey respondents reported lower sales than this time last year, 27 percent have seen new and current development projects stall, and 24 percent have seen one or more businesses close.
While many survey participants have felt insulated from the nose dive in the stock market, they aren't confident that their good fortune will last. The Center plans to resurvey the field in six months to see how the post-holiday retail and business environment will shape the economic prospects for Main Streets.
Right now it appears that the majority of community leaders and municipal governments understand the value of having an organization dedicated to the support of their commercial districts, such as the local Main Street® organizations surveyed. Only a few respondents mentioned looming cuts in municipal funding for their revitalization program or reductions in sponsorship levels for their programs.
To maintain this trend, Doug Loescher, executive director of the NTMSC, stresses that, "now is the time for aggressive communications and marketing by local programs to promote their districts and businesses. We need to remind community stakeholders and other financial supporters that their downtown and neighborhood district revitalization efforts are essential to rebuilding our economic vitality. Main Street provides a supportive network, business assistance, and continuous promotions that help keep shopping dollars local and the commercial district less susceptible to an economic downturn."
Exemplifying this mandate is the annual accomplishment report that the Downtown Las Cruces (N.Mex.) Partnership creates. The group understands that now is a pivotal time to emphasize the Main Street program's economic impact and convince "bargain hunters" to take advantage of affordable investment opportunities created by the current economic climate.
Most programs are doing what Main Street does best: providing business assistance and keeping the commercial district in the minds of consumers. The survey found that 62 percent of respondents have been producing additional and expanded special events and retail promotions, 32 percent have coordinated advertising or joint marketing programs, 29 percent have focused on building media coverage, 28 percent have launched shop-local campaigns, and 20 percent have been offering business assistance and training programs.
Several respondents indicated that while some of the more marginal businesses have closed, most of the stronger businesses have found creative ways to bolster their sales and business, and often with the assistance of local revitalization programs. To help business owners make it through tough times, for example, the Marion (Va.) Downtown Revitalization Association, Inc., produced a Small Business Survival Breakfast with the local Small Business Development Center, the local SCORE chapter, and a downtown bank to discuss the services they offer and answer business owners' questions.
Most Main Street programs are coordinating holiday open houses that build shopping excitement by creating "street theater" with carolers and musicians and feature exceptional customer service, extended hours, and refreshments in the shops. The Main Street program in Durant, Okla., has found another innovative way to lure people downtown by bringing in an ice rink.
Many shoppers are also being lured into Main Street districts thanks to "Shop Local" campaigns, which emphasize the quality and value offered by local producers and entrepreneurs. Dover, N.H., launched a "We Shop Dover" campaign for 45 days for $450. It features an online business directory, downtown certificates, window decals, business events, and a website (WeShopDover.com). Ever resourceful, the Main Street program worked with a Dover-based web development firm to get the website created for free and spent the bulk of its money printing window decals for the businesses. Thanks to press releases and PSAs, word is getting out about shopping local in Dover.
Communities aren't abandoning image-building marketing promotions either. Downtown Lee’s Summit (Mo.) hopes to dazzle shoppers with its new "Sparkle" campaign. After an 18-month streetscape project, Lee's Summit's commercial district looks sparkling new: a gift catalog, 15,000 postcards, yard signs, promotional door tags, and holiday decorations with 100,000 sparkling lights point people to downtown businesses for sparkling gifts—residents within three zip codes can't miss the holiday sparkle of Lee's Summit's downtown.
Businesses in Main Street districts are finding ways to cope, as well. Making lemonade out of lemons, Keith and Shelly Crandall, the owners of Cafe La Ronde in Fort Peirce, Fla., built a buzz over their "Recession Lunch Menu" with $3.99 deals and new early-bird specials on their dinner "Depression Menu." Visitors to the Main Street program's website and the Sunrise Theatre's site can link to menus for downtown restaurants so they can plan their dining at La Ronde and other locales accordingly.
Other businesses are responding by expanding services. In Southwest Detroit, for example, some businesses are adding delivery services to their business model and some eateries are now offering boxed-lunch preparation for business meetings. One particularly entrepreneurial hotel in Athens, Ga., realized that smaller businesses were forgoing their annual holiday parties. By allowing several businesses to share the costs of one big, multi-company party, the hotel is throwing a "Big Small Business Holiday Bash" to give employers an affordable holiday party option.
At the National Trust Main Street Center, we believe that the creativity and positive vibes created by local Main Street initiatives will help local communities pull through this economic downturn. By strategically marketing to target audiences and using solid market data to understand local demographics and determine the right business mix for their communities, revitalization organizations can position their districts as places where businesses can thrive.
To help Main Street programs during these tough times, we have assembled a "List of Things You Can Do Right Now" to inspire local programs to take action today. We also offer ShopMainStreet.org where members can list local businesses in a national e-commerce-enabled independent business portal. Recently, the Center also produced a special national webinar on "Thriving in a Slow Economy"(the online archive is available for purchase). Look for helpful resources and articles in up-coming issues of Main Street News, where we will share more information on how to keep your districts vibrant.