Main Street Returns to Alabama

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A reinvigorated Main Street marks a milestone this month in Alabama. It is completing the first year of staffed operations, ending on a high note with the addition of three new designated Main Street communities. They join ten existing communities that have embraced the demands and benefits of a more rigorous, outcome-focused program that is the hallmark of Main Street Alabama.

Why the celebration, in a state that was one of the first to establish a Main Street program in the early 1980s? After all, the Alabama program (housed in the Alabama Historical Commission, the state historic preservation agency) helped spark revitalization in a number of picturesque towns and downtowns. Unfortunately, however, in the early 2000s state budget cuts eliminated the program. Nonetheless, despite lacking state coordination, some local programs continued operating at various levels of activity, and two communities started new programs.

Then, in 2008, leaders of several community development initiatives began urging reestablishment of the Alabama program, saying that it was the missing piece in their efforts to revitalize small towns and historic communities. They envisioned a Main Street component joining their various initiatives to achieve greater success. This core group turned to the Alabama Historical Commission for help. The Alabama Historical Commission secured funding from the Economic Development Administration and private matching funds to assess the feasibility of restarting a state Main Street program. A Steering Committee was formed to guide the effort, made up of co-chairs David Fleming, then head of Main Street Birmingham, and Nisa Miranda, University of Alabama Center for Economic Development. Other members of the committee were Marsha Bankston, former Alexander City Main Street director; Tom Chesnutt, Auburn University and Alabama Cooperative Extension System specialist in rural tourism; Paul Kennedy, Your Town Alabama; Ellen Mertins, Alabama Historical Commission; Cheryl Morgan, Auburn University Urban Studio; Steve Ostaseski, then with the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham; and Mary Shell, Alabama Historical Commission. 
The next step was to hire the National Main Street Center (NMSC) to conduct the feasibility study. The NMSC consulting team, led by former staffer Lauren Adkins, consisted of two NMSC staff plus former Mississippi Main Street Association executive director Beverly Meng, and Alabama preservationist Alice Bowsher. Over the course of several months in spring 2009, the team met with some 100 community representatives, public officials, and interested parties in focus groups in five locations around the state. They also met with the Steering Committee; with a group of public and private partners that included representatives of state agencies, of elected officials, of corporate leaders, and of economic developers; with potential funders; and with leaders of the Main Street Birmingham program. The consultants found strong interest in and a real need for a state program that could help expand and diversify the state’s economic base, strengthen competitiveness for tourism and retirement dollars, and promote community values and self-sufficiency.

The consultant’s final report recommended establishing a private nonprofit modeled after the Mississippi Main Street Association, the successful program in the adjacent state that had an impressive record of public-private investment and job creation. In addition, they recommended raising funding for a three-year start-up with staffed operations. They proposed concentrating on strengthening existing communities in the first year, providing intensive training and technical assistance, and then beginning to add new communities in the following years. Measuring and reporting results regularly would be critical to future funding.
With this blueprint, the following year a Board of Directors organized and incorporated Main Street Alabama as a private nonprofit to serve as state coordinator of Main Street in Alabama. The incorporators were founding board members Charles Ball, executive director of the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham and chair of Main Street Alabama; Barbara Patton, civic leader and former mayor of Opelika, which has an active Main Street program; and Marsha Bankston, another civic leader and former Main Street director in Alexander City. In February of that year the IRS approved Main Street Alabama’s 501(c)3 status. Meanwhile, the Board continued to build and, with the help of volunteers Ellen Mertins and Alice Bowsher, to lay groundwork to implement the consultant report. Unfortunately, just as things were falling into place, the recession hit the state hard, and potential funding for the first three years evaporated, slowing but not derailing the effort.

In 2011, Main Street Alabama continued to build, with the help of a $50,000 Goodrich Foundation grant to grow capacity and support training for participating communities, which had ceased when the state program lost funding. Ellen Mertins, with the Alabama Historical Commission, helped plan regular opportunities to strengthen performance. Meanwhile, the Board stayed focused on the need to hire experienced staff. With the Goodrich Foundation support and the help of a fundraising consultant, they developed a strategic plan and a budget to accomplish it. The consultant then assessed the feasibility of the fundraising goal. Based on positive results, the Board initiated a campaign to fund the first three years of staffed operations. Running parallel to this were efforts to raise Main Street Alabama’s visibility with a branded logo and tagline and articles in widely distributed publications.
Once funding for the first three years was secured, the Board was ready to hire its first President/State Coordinator. After an extensive national search, in spring 2013 Main Street Alabama hired former Kansas Main Street veteran Mary Helmer to lead the organization. The search committee found that she met all its criteria, including strong experience running Main Street programs at both the state and local levels, and having particular expertise in economic development.

When she moved from Kansas to Alabama in June 2013, Helmer faced a daunting list of tasks to get Main Street Alabama operational and producing results. Near the top was to establish an office and an engaging web site, with a reliable, interactive, internet-based system to report and track performance statistics on a monthly basis. She immediately began delivering high-impact quarterly training sessions, as well as on-site training and technical assistance to meet specific community needs. She gave dozens of public presentations around the state; met with collaborators and partners, investors, grant-making agencies, and many other interested parties; and began recruiting new communities. She commissioned a marketing and communications plan. She worked to expand and strengthen the Board, and recruited part-time staff with skills in areas of particular need. All in the first year of operations, in a state she had never visited before!

Main Street Alabama recently announced the addition of three new designated communities.   The three newest Designated Main Street communities are diverse in their downtowns and their needs from the Main Street program. Decatur has a strong existing downtown redevelopment program but was interested in the networking and market data provided by Main Street Alabama to assist with business expansion and entrepreneurial development. Oxford has great population and business growth by the interstate but its downtown has stood still in some respects and presents unique needs and challenges. Monroeville, home of Harper Lee and setting of the fictional town in To Kill A Mockingbird is considered the state’s literary capital but as a community has been losing population and needs a revitalization plan and strategy to reverse the trend.
In the coming year, Helmer and the Board will focus on a successful launch of the new programs and accelerating the performance of existing Main Streets, on celebrating accomplishments at a new awards luncheon, and on formulating a new 5-year strategic plan and raising the funds to implement it. Main Street Alabama aims to transform quality of life in Alabama communities by restoring the vitality of their downtowns, and to be the recognized leader of community & economic revitalization in Alabama.

Main Street also offers a Downtown Network level of services for communities interested in downtown revitalization but not ready for or seeking the in-depth services that come from being a Designated Main Street community.

Main Street Alabama will continue to strengthen strategic alliances with economic development agencies and organizations around the state, with community development organizations, with lenders, Chambers of Commerce, Regional Planning Commissions, the Alabama Historical Commission, the Alabama League of Municipalities, Alabama architects and planners, and a number of other entities with which it shares common goals.

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