Director's Column

Summary Judgment in Kansas

By now, you have probably heard that on September 20, the Kansas Department of Commerce summarily ended Kansas Main Street, a 27-year-old program currently providing commercial district revitalization services to 25 designated Main Street communities across the state. The 2012 state Main Street conference scheduled to begin on October 17, only weeks away, was canceled.

I first became aware of the power of the word “summarily” many years ago when reading Ambrose Bierce’s riveting short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Set during the Civil War, the story opens with well-to-do Alabama planter Peyton Fahrquhar about to be “summarily hanged” for interfering with the Union Army’s advancement. A summary judgment is swift, allowing no debate. In other words, no trial, no jury, no time to present evidence. The noose is placed around your neck, and the wooden trap door drops beneath your feet.

In effect, Kansas Main Street was “summarily hanged.” The Commerce Department’s abrupt announcement that it was ending the program ignored overwhelming evidence—$557 million reinvested in Kansas downtowns over nearly three decades, 3,678 new businesses created, and 8,518 new jobs. Kansas Main Street managers, residents of Main Street communities, and elected officials have expressed their shock and dismay—and there have already been calls for the state to reconsider its action. We sincerely hope these efforts will be successful. While the need to restructure a division of state government to be more cost effective is certainly understandable, it’s hard to fathom any other state economic development program being able to rival the track record that Main Street has for leveraging economic impact.

The summary judgment in Kansas, however, is a reminder that especially in times of budget uncertainties, the future of any program—federal, state or local, government or nonprofit, in Kansas or anywhere else—is not a sure thing. More than ever we all need to implement measures that may not guarantee financial stability but can certainly help counter unexpected setbacks or sudden reversals of fortune.

Diversify revenue sources. Having only one major revenue source, such as a state government agency or a local municipality, severely hampers the chance for survival if that source is suddenly eliminated. Beverly Schmitz Glass, executive director of Downtown Vision, the Main Street program in Garden City, Kansas, understands this. According to the Garden City Telegram, Glass said she was surprised by the announcement [that the state program was ending], but said the Garden City program would remain viable.

“One of the things that we determined when we first started is that we wanted to be as self-sufficient as we could,” Glass said. “Of course, we utilize any program that the state offers, from tax credits and everything else, but it was more important for us to be self-sustaining, and so even if [the state program] went away, we could still survive because our funding comes from memberships, sponsorships, and grants.”

Know your numbers—and make your case early. When the Kansas decision was announced, local programs were immediately able to demonstrate the enormous economic impact of Main Street in their state by citing reinvestment statistics collected by the National Main Street Center since 1980, as well as leveraged figures from local investment. In Garden City, said Glass, 26 loans worth $142,000 from the state’s Incentives Without Walls program have been awarded since 2004, matched locally by $711,000. While knowing investment statistics is important, it’s even more critical to use the numbers to make the case on a continuous basis—before a crisis occurs.

Enlist decision makers as stakeholders. State Representative Richard Carlson currently represents Wamego, Kansas, and will represent Holton, another Main Street community, in the next session. According to the Topeka Capital-Journal, Carlson described Main Street as “a valuable tool for our small towns to upgrade their main streets.” He said he plans to visit with state officials to discuss whether the program could continue, at least in a reduced fashion.

Never give up. Volunteers in the Winfield Main Street program believe they can keep it going without support from Kansas Main Street. Said long-time Main Street activist Dorothy Fisher in the Winfield Daily Courier, “I’ll keep doing the flowers ‘til Heck freezes over.” And according to the Topeka Capital-Journal, Bob Carlson, executive director of Holton Main Street, emphasized that Holton is still tied to the National Main Street Center and in the long-term will build on the foundation already established.

We want to emphasize that, too. The National Trust and the National Main Street Center will continue to support Kansas Main Street communities and their efforts to revitalize downtowns in Kansas.

Update. Since this column was written in September, we can fortunately add one more “best practice” to the list.

Maintain professionalism. Thanks to the solid track record of Kansas Main Street; a focused, dedicated team of managers; and well-intentioned state officials, conversations are now under way in Kansas to explore options for moving the program to another structure that will allow it to survive. The Department of Commerce has offered to provide some financial support to allow the state conference to go forward as planned. This has the potential to become an excellent model for how to work reasonably through a crisis. Stay tuned!-