History of the National Main Street Center

Main Street Center Goes to Work, 1980

The Main Street Project

In 1977, concerned about continuing threats to traditional commercial architecture in economically declining downtowns across America, the National Trust for Historic Preservation launched the Main Street Project. The three-year demonstration project was designed to study the reasons so many downtowns were dying, identify the factors affecting downtown's health, and develop a comprehensive revitalization strategy to save historic commercial buildings. In a regional competition among 70 towns, three pilot communities, ranging in size from 5,000 to 38,000 people, were chosen for the project: Galesburg, Illinois, Madison, Indiana, and Hot Springs, South Dakota. The National Trust assisted the three communities by providing an analysis of each downtown's assets and needs. These architectural and community profiles, conducted by consultants under the direction of the National Trust, served as the basis for design improvements and economic revitalization strategies that would make it feasible to rehabilitate and reuse historic downtown buildings. With a grant from the manufacturing firm Bird and Son, the National Trust hired a full-time Main Street program manager for each community. The program manager's role was to serve as an advocate for the downtown; coordinate project activities; and convince merchants, property owners, and city officials to spend funds that would create long-term benefits. In effect, the three program managers served as catalysts for change.

The demonstration program laid the groundwork for the Main Street Approach to downtown revitalization. What became clear over the three years was the need for a strong public-private partnership, a dedicated community-based organization, a full-time local program manager, a commitment to good design, quality promotional programs, and a coordinated, incremental process. By almost any standard of measurement, business improved in all three downtowns during the Main Street Project, showing the direct connection between historic preservation and economic and community revitalization. Seven new businesses opened in Hot Springs, six in Madison, and thirty in Galesburg. Sales tax revenues increased by 25 percent in Hot Springs, while the downtown occupancy rate in Galesburg rose to 95 percent. Moreover, for every dollar spent on managing the local Main Street project, $11 was invested by private businesses in rehabilitation and adaptive-use projects. Most importantly, scores of buildings were rehabilitated and put back into productive use, preserving important symbols of each community's unique heritage for future generations.  

The Center's Early Years: The First Six States

The National Main Street Center (NMSC) was established by the National Trust in 1980 to share the successes of Hot Springs, Madison, and Galesburg with communities throughout the country. The Center, located in the National Trust's Washington, D.C., headquarters, was initially supported by several federal agencies, including the Department of Housing and Urban Development, National Endowment for the Arts, Department of Transportation, Economic Development Administration, Small Business Administration, and Farmers' Home Administration. The program managers from the three pilot communities and personnel from the National Trust's Midwest Regional Office became the NMSC staff.

In collaboration with the International Downtown Executives' Association (IDEA), the National Trust designed a second demonstration program. Although many components were the same as in the original pilot project, some changes were made to the National Trust's relationship with communities. First, the NMSC would provide assistance to communities through state Main Street programs, each headed by a state coordinator. This would help states develop networks through which to mobilize resources, share experiences, and transfer lessons to other communities. Additionally, the communities involved in the second demonstration program would be responsible for hiring their own staff, which would make the local program managers better advocates for their downtowns.

In the spring of 1980, the National Trust announced a competition to select six states to participate in the demonstration program. With the assistance of IDEA and the Council of State Community Affairs Agencies, the NMSC selected Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Texas from the 38 states that applied. In turn, each of the six states chose five towns to serve as its initial Main Street network.

The state demonstration program concluded in late 1983 with impressive results. Twenty of the communities formed new downtown organizations, while eight towns substantially strengthened existing groups. Twenty-eight of the towns established low-interest loan pools or other incentive programs to stimulate facade renovation and building rehabilitation projects, resulting in more than 650 new facades and nearly 600 rehabilitations—with a total investment of more than $64 million. In addition, 60 new construction projects took place, representing an additional investment of $84 million. The communities saw 1,050 business starts, with less than half as many business failures. Many of the towns also developed and implemented formal business recruitment efforts and programs designed to attract developers and investors, thereby providing a solid economic base to support the reuse of each downtown's historic commercial buildings.

Growth and Expansion of the National Main Street Center


In 1984, the National Main Street Center began expanding its network of state programs; by 1990, this coalition had grown to include 31 states and more than 600 communities. To make the Main Street Approach available to an even wider audience, in September 1984, the NMSC organized the country's first national videoconference focusing on the downtown. The five-hour, live television broadcast linked more than 26,000 people in 450 towns nationwide to learn how Main Street works. After the broadcast, the NMSC produced a series of how-to videotapes and user guides on several key revitalization issues. The videotape series and videoconference were sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Office of Rural Development Policy.

To bring the Main Street Approach to even more people, the Center founded the Main Street Network Membership program in 1985. This membership program was designed to offer those involved in downtown revitalization access to the information, knowledge, and experiences of their colleagues throughout the country. Member communities received the monthly newsletter, Main Street News, and additional benefits were soon added. 

In 1985, the NMSC launched a third demonstration program, this time working with cities whose populations exceeded 50,000. Eight cities were chosen to participate in this Urban Demonstration Program, with four programs focusing on downtown commercial districts and four centering on neighborhood commercial districts. The Urban Demonstration Program concluded in 1988. In 1989, the NMSC began working at the other end of the spectrum, with small towns whose populations were under 5,000.

In September 1986, more than 500 local Main Street program leaders and others interested in downtown revitalization attended the first Main Street Conference, called the National Town Meeting, held in Winston-Salem, NC An annual event since then, this conference has been hugely successful in training and expanding the network of local programs in communities across the country.


The number of communities and states participating in the Main Street program continued to swell from 1986 to 2003, with more1,600 communities forming programs in 41 states. During the 1990s, the Center expanded its technical services, information resources, and other benefits to its network of programs. Citywide, urban-based programs were introduced in San Diego, Chicago, and Boston. The Boston Main Streets Program has flourished and is a model program today, providing inspiration for the launching of additional citywide programs in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., in the late 1990s.  

The Center also developed dynamic strategic partnerships with a variety of entities, such as the U.S. Government Services Administration to provide information about federal government office workers; the U.S. Army to guide redevelopment of closing army base facilities; and the Surdna Foundation to provide research on sprawl and its effects. Their research demonstrated that compact, inter-connected Main Street communities, as opposed to sprawling ones, provide residents with safer, healthier lives and greater social and economic mobility.  

The Center has also harnessed new technologies to provide greater services to its constituents through development of its website, production of dynamic publications and other resources, and expansion of membership benefits. Along with an increase in the number of active programs, the National Town Meeting conference continued to grow, reaching a peak attendance of 1,575 in Indianapolis in 2001.

The impact of applying tools given to communities through the Main Street program at the local level has been tremendous. From 1980 to 2002, Main Street communities saw a cumulative net reinvestment of $17 billion, with an average reinvestment of $9.5 million in each community . More than 57,000 net new businesses and 231,000 net new jobs have been created, with the average cost of a job created only $2,394. In fact, with each dollar spent on operating the local program generating $40.35 in return to the community, the Main Street program became the most cost efficient economic development program in the country.

The Center continued to lead the preservation-based commercial district revitalization movement throughout a decade that saw an explosion of sprawl. More and more communities recognized the need for a healthy city center in the face of a changing physical and retail landscape and found success in the use of the Main Street Approach. Land-use planners, economic development officials, chamber of commerce executives, local and state governments, and others saw the advantage of revitalizing their communities' existing resources and learned the concept that historic preservation can spur economic development. 

Transition and Challenges

The turn of the 21st century brought a new awareness that preservation-based commercial district revitalization, and especially the Main Street Approach, could be applied to communities in ways other than the structured format of state and citywide Main Street programs. As the National Trust and its Main Street Center endeavored to meet a growing range of situations, the Center explored how Main Street could work in housing organizations, such as Community Development Corporations. It also sought to bring its methodology to existing Business Improvement Districts and Chambers of Commerce.

In 2004, the Center was renamed the National Trust Main Street Center in response to the growing challenges that America's communities were facing. The National Trust sought to reach more communities with a preservation message that is relevant to any type of organization, community, or individual building. With the development of the Community Partners program and its dynamic set of loans and funding programs, the National Trust sought to offer assistance that met the diverse needs and challenges of communities striving to protect their traditional commercial districts, buildings, and places that make up their unique identity. In line with these broader goals, the Center changed the name of its annual conference to the National Main Streets Conference in order to brand the conference's identity among its current and prospective constituents.

National Main Street Center, Inc.

July 1, 2013, marked the official launch of the National Main Street Center, Inc. (NMSC), a newly formed, nonprofit subsidiary of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  With leadership from a new Board of Directors and CEO, the National Main Street Center will build on its long-standing commitment to advancing the preservation-based revitalization of commercial districts throughout the country.

Main Street America™

In 2015, the Center launched a new program brand—Main Street America—to reinvigorate our collective look, feel, and strategy to position Main Street as a leader locally, regionally, and nationally.