Director’s Column

New Friends in Hard Times

Like many of you in your communities, as director of the National Trust Main Street Center, I wear many hats, serving many roles. One of the most rewarding roles is that of the fortunate leader of this passionate, powerful movement: the National Main Street Network. Almost 1,800-strong today, our collective momentum has taken us from virtual obscurity in a world of skeptics just 30 years ago, where everyone believed that downtown was dead, that preservation was anti-development, and that big-fix projects were the solution.

Wow… what a difference a few decades make. Today, thanks to the early pioneers of the National Main Street Center, we have an ingenious strategy for coordinating programs that have flourished in 45 state, regional, and citywide programs, to say nothing of the relentless optimism demonstrated by our 1,200+ local grassroots organizations in virtually every corner of America. Together, we have not only proved them wrong, we have won over quite a few friends in the process. And in hard times like these, Main Street needs new friends more than ever.

I was reminded of how many friends we do indeed have through my participation in recent national conferences, where “Main Street” has become not just a household word, but a recognized and respected revitalization program and network. Last fall, for example, while attending the International Downtown Association conference in Charlotte, I was struck by how much the tone and content of that event has changed over the last few years. Regardless of the size of their downtowns, our peers now see our work as a significant contribution to the important national challenge we all face. Main Street is well respected not only for its rural roots, but also for its practical methodology, which has been successfully applied in so many urban neighborhood settings as well.

More recently, the New Partners in Smart Growth conference—the preeminent gathering of the planning, policy, and development fields focused on sustainable communities—was an eye-opening experience. “Main Street” was a thread running through many of the educational sessions for this network, and not just in name only. Many professionals in these fields now know about our Main Street programs, and many have been touched directly, having at one point or another lived in a Main Street community; volunteered on a committee; or helped to launch, fund, or partner a local initiative.

As I look around these gatherings of like-minded professionals and decision makers, I am convinced that we are poised—as a national network—to harness these new friendships, to work shoulder to shoulder for the same purpose: revitalized, sustainable, livable communities. But what exactly can these new “friends” do for Main Street?

First, our peers are often laying the groundwork for future success in our districts. On national, state, and local levels, a new generation of planners and policy makers are increasingly re-writing ordinances, grant guidelines, and growth policies so that they are Main Street-friendly. From form-based codes and “complete streets” infrastructure guidelines to “location efficiency” public facilities funding criteria, these regulations are helping to level the playing field, if not tilt it a bit in our favor.

Second, our peers are inviting us to the big table to participate in national discussions and decision making that will affect the future of community development—and the resources available to make that happen. As director of the Center, I see my role as an advocate for our cause, by participating in federal agency networking and programs that include HUD, EPA, USDA, and DOT and by serving as a member of the Smart Growth Network Steering Committee—a coordinating body of dozens of government and leading national organizations that are focusing on sustainable communities—a great fit for our mission. By building these connections and taking part in the conversation, I am optimistic that an increasing number of federal programs will become accessible to our communities. (Watch for specific grant opportunities from these agencies, which are regularly announced through this journal, Main Street NOW; our electronic newsletter, Main Street Weekly, and daily posts on our Facebook page).

Third, the momentum of our movement—even in these hard times—has solidified our reputation as a strong, serious national network, with deep rural roots, consistent economic progress, and an army of local Main Street champions… all with an infectious enthusiasm for our cause, an enthusiasm that our new friends are more than happy to share.