Hottest Trends on Main Street

Are entrepreneurs growing on Main Street? How is Main Street doing compared to big-box stores and strip malls? Do people want to live downtown?

Every year, the National Trust Main Street Center conducts a survey to discover the latest trends on Main Streets nationwide. This year, the picture, as shown by the responses of 500 local Main Street programs, is one of high energy in a slow economy, with lots of innovation, ranging from strategic uses of social media to cool “green” projects. Here are some of the major trends.

Strong business growth.  Despite the cash crunch that is preventing small businesses from getting needed financing to expand, Main Street districts reported surprisingly strong growth in new businesses after a big drop last year. More than 5,000 businesses opened on the Main Streets of responding communities, nearly equaling the 10-year peak reached in 2006.

Competing with the strip. Half of all Main Street programs reported that the economic health of their commercial districts was on par with nearby communities. Even more impressive, however, is that 35 percent are doing better than surrounding commercial centers, and nearly 30 percent reported the closure of at least one big-box store in their area.

New entrepreneurs. Nearly 50 percent reported new entrepreneurs in their districts. From boomers to women to those under 30, Main Street is attracting new business owners, many from outside the community. In Woodville, Mississippi, the Main Street program’s track record in heritage tourism and preservation inspired a couple from New Orleans to buy a building on the courthouse square. As a tax credit project ¾ the Woodville Loft and Studios ¾ will soon bring 12 storefronts and condos to this small town. And in a great homecoming story, a 21-year old native of Sidney, Nebraska, came back after college with the dream of opening her own business. So Historic Downtown Sidney connected her with a retiring business owner, and helped with her first six months rent. This way, the Main Street program found a way to re-energize an old business, while creating a future for a new entrepreneur… one of its own. And in the northwest, Oregon City Main Street launched a video marketing and recruitment campaign for creative professionals who are interested in growing their business in a funky downtown setting. Their campaign kicked off last year and brought in eight new businesses in the first few months.

Living downtown.  Housing on Main Street seems to be gaining steam as a niche for historic commercial districts. A recent National Association of Realtors Survey shows that 77% of homebuyers are seeking central locations with the type of pedestrian-friendly features found on Main Street.  This year’s Trends Survey confirmed that demand for housing might be outstripping current developer interest. In Nacogdoches, Texas, for example, the Main Street manager gets constant inquiries from people looking for that downtown lifestyle. Only 8 housing units are currently under construction, but the manager says the downtown market could easily absorb 50 more this year.

Social media marketing. For many businesses, social media is finally beginning to pay off. The 2011 Social Media Marketing Industry Report found that almost half of small business owners improved sales and reduced marketing costs through social media. In Rochester, Michigan, for example, the downtown program offers one-on-one consultations with business owners to get them on Facebook. So far 140 businesses have a social media presence, including the Funky Frog children’s boutique, which immediately saw a bump in sales as a result. And in Rockland, Maine, a long-time employee of Rock City Books wanted to buy the bookstore from its owner, despite her grad school debt and lack of credit. So, she found another way… using her social media network of indie bookstores fans, she raised $5000 in two months from people who believed in her.

“Hot Green.” Where are the hottest innovations right now? Where are young people focusing their attention? What types of organizations are gaining members? The answer: if it’s green, it’s growing! The sustainable communities movement is laying the foundation for a major shift in the way we use land and other resources and the way we plan cities. Sustainable innovations to watch out for include form-based codes, energy codes, and “location efficiency.” What’s that you say? A new study by EPA confirms what we in the preservation field have suspected all along: that where we construct our buildings has just as big an impact as how we construct, in terms of energy consumption. This new paradigm is called “location efficiency”, and is beginning to make the case for dense, walkable districts, such as Main Street. For the first time, guidelines and funding priorities may shift in favor of preservation and Main Streets, simply because of our “efficient” locations!

The bottom line for this year, Main Street is not only holding its own as the economy slowly recovers; it is moving ahead with great energy, optimism, and innovation.