Kansas Main Street: 25 Years of “Making Dreams Come True”

Its 25th anniversary gives us reason to turn our attention to a perennial powerhouse, Kansas Main Street! Congratulations to Kansas Main Street on reaching this quarter-century milestone.

For more than two decades, the Kansas Main Street (KMS) program has consistently provided its network with top-notch training, technical assistance, evaluation, advocacy, and funding services. The state's network of designated local programs, currently 25, has thrived under its guidance, producing two Great American Main Street Award winners. Over its history, Kansas Main Street has helped generate $556.9 million in total reinvestment, 3,678 net new businesses, and 8,518 new jobs.

Kansas Main Street distinguishes itself in several areas.

In 2009, Kansas Main Street expanded to offer four tiers of membership, thus broadening communities’ exposure to the power of the Main Street movement. For as little as $300 per year, Downtown Network Communities can tap into training programs, an electronic network, and technical assistance from Kansas Main Street staff. At the other end of the spectrum are the Honor Communities, which have successfully completed at least five years as designated Main Street programs, have achieved Kansas certification, and have met National Main Street standards for three consecutive years. Kansas Main Street serves this network well by establishing a rigorous, competitive application process that helps communities understand and prepare for KMS’ expectations and by providing a strong, well-defined sequence of services to build local capacity. 

KMS was also a nationwide pioneer in providing web-based trainings to small businesses. Its online training in topics such as growing sales, increasing profits, and attracting customer traffic has helped small businesses gain valuable insight at little personal expense, while also bolstering Kansas Main Street’s reputation as being a relevant, even essential partner in the small business community.

Kansas Main Street directors proved their advocacy mettle in a recent battle over the state historic tax credit. The credit was badly gutted in 2009. The cuts, including a capped distribution and a 75 percent reduction in tax credit allocation essentially derailed historic adaptive-use projects in Kansas downtowns. A year later, the Kansas Main Street network joined preservation allies in documenting the economic impact of tax credit projects in numerous Kansas Main Street communities. The evidence, which was presented in testimony to a legislative committee, so clearly demonstrated the profound importance of the state historic tax credits that a bill passed restoring the state credit and effectively restarting stalled historic projects throughout the state.

Kansas Main Street has an ability to develop useful financing tools that generate a long term impact. Its Incentives Without Walls (IWW) grant program was founded in 1995 to stimulate private investment in designated Kansas Main Street communities. It is funded by the Kansas Department of Commerce, which houses KMS.

It works this way: KMS provides grant funds to a local Main Street program, which in turn makes no-interest loans available for uses such as business start-ups, business expansions, building acquisition, and rehab or façade renovations. Loan repayments from business owners help fund a local revolving loan program. One local Main Street organization realized that its original $10,000 grant from Kansas Main Street in 1996 had revolved six times; in other words, repayments of the original $10,000 had seeded six additional loans by the Local Revolving Loan program. In fiscal year 2010, the Incentives Without Walls program loaned nearly $200,000 to small businesses, leveraging $1.24 million in private investment — a $6.30 to $1 ratio. In that same year, the Local Revolving Loan program provided almost $300,000, leveraging $1.3 million in private investment — a $4.49 to $1 ratio. Total private investment reached $2.5 million.
Kansas Main Street provides us with a wealth of innovative case studies from across its network, including two Great American Main Street Award winners, Parsons (2006) and Emporia (2005).

Emporia Main Street has had much success in leveraging creative partnerships to bolster its downtown district. It founded an Entrepreneur Program at Flint Hills Technical College consisting of a five-week course that informs start-up businesses on topics ranging from insurance to marketing. Graduates get one-year memberships in Emporia Main Street and the Chamber of Commerce. They are also eligible for a zero-percent-interest loan from Main Street to help with start-up costs. Emporia Main Street also joined with the local high school’s Future Business Leaders of America group to survey teenagers about the kinds of retail, dining, and entertainment they would support in the city. Within three months, local businesses added products and services to respond to young people’s needs.

What has Kansas Main Street really meant to its communities? Perhaps that is best expressed by a shop owner in Leavenworth who spoke glowingly about the role the local program played in her decision to locate her specialty shop downtown:

 “When I contemplated opening a business in our historic downtown, I spoke with shop, restaurant, and business owners about what organizations supported them and their goals. Without exception, I learned that the Leavenworth Main Street program was a valuable resource.  Convinced that I could be successful in Leavenworth, I met with the Main Street director and advised her of my plans to open a specialty store. I purchased a building that Main Street told me was available (even though it was not publicly listed), received an IWW grant from Kansas Main Street, and I have received a no-interest Network Kansas Loan — all made possible by the knowledgeable team of Leavenworth Main Street staff and members. I highly recommend membership in Main Street as it is a fantastic source of information, ideas, support, and networking.”

Another businessowner put it simply: "Thank you Main Street for helping to make my dreams come true!”