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Michigan Main Street Refresh Implementation: Our Process and Lessons Learned So Far

By Michigan Main Street Center | From Main Street Story of the WeekApril 27, 2017 |
                                Community Strategy Identification Session, Downtown Charlotte (photo credit: Windwalker Underground Gallery)

By now you know that Michigan Main Street is the first coordinating program to roll-out the refreshed Main Street Approach in all 21 of our Select and Master Level communities across the state. We began this process in the Spring of 2016 when we chose one Select Level and two Master Level communities—Saline, Boyne City and Grand Haven—to pilot the implementation of the new Main Street Approach. We learned many lessons from the process and transformation strategies that were identified for each of these communities. By the end of these pilots, we felt excited and confident in this new approach and decided to enhance our partnership with Main Street America and move forward with the opportunity to take the rest of our communities through the refresh implementation process.

Fast forward to today, three-quarters of our communities have been through the initial stage of the refresh implementation process. As the first coordinating program to implement the new approach on such a large scale, we feel that we have developed a robust process and have learned valuable lessons that we want to begin sharing as best practices. We hope that you, as either a coordinating program or local main street organization, can utilize and adapt our process for your efforts in implementing the refreshed Main Street Approach. After all, what is Main Street without the ability to “R&D” (“Rip-off and Duplicate”), leveraging our nationwide network to collaborate and learn from each other? Please, take what we have defined as the refresh implementation process for our communities, love it as we do, and then adjust it to address the unique needs and opportunities in your local community. 

Michigan Main Street Refresh Implementation Process

Remember when we said that we wanted to take the implementation process utilized in the three pilot communities and replicate it in our remaining 18 communities? The first lesson we learned is that implementation must occur over time and be adapted to the specific circumstances of each local program. In other words, we realized that each community would have different needs and opportunities that could be addressed through the refresh process and that successfully incorporating these unique dynamics into a transformation strategy would require a longer-term approach to implementation. Though the Main Street Four Points remain as the foundation, the new Main Street Approach has required local organizations to shift the way they think and operate to develop programming and define success. Once we recognized the power of the refresh to help communities make such a significant shift, we developed the following process to gradually help move our communities toward defining locally relevant strategies that will drive their programming and help direct the use of resources in their local district. 

                                                                        Michigan Main Street Strategy Implementation Process

Step One: Strategy Identification at the Community and Main Street Organization Level

The first step in our process involves close partnership with Main Street America to conduct community and leadership surveys, as well as identify baseline market information about the community. These inputs are evaluated to identify where community feedback and market opportunities overlap; this overlap is the foundation for potential transformation strategies that are proposed to the community and Main Street organization during an on-site visit. During the on-site visit, Main Street America and Michigan Main Street staff meet with a wide variety of community stakeholders including: municipal leaders, business and property owners and other partner organizations prevalent within the community to gather additional insight about the community’s downtown and discuss the potential strategies that emerged from pre-visit surveys and market research. These on-site conversations are used to refine the initial transformation strategies—sometimes eliminating a potential strategy or highlighting a specific niche within a strategy. Following the stakeholder focus group meetings, Main Street America staff present the community and local Main Street organization with the input received from the local surveys and stakeholder meetings, a summary of the demographic and market data, and two to three recommended transformation strategies. Attendees at the presentation are then asked to discuss and reflect-on potential transformation strategies, so that the Main Street Board can make a formal decision about which strategy to pursue.  

                                                  Focus Group Meeting, Downtown Lapeer (photo credit: Michigan Main Street Center)

This step has proven to be critical in building momentum and community buy-in for the refresh implementation process. Not only does it allow for the community and local leaders’ input to be heard and accounted for, but it also provides all stakeholders with the ability to be engaged in the process of identifying a strategic direction for their downtown. These stakeholder meetings have also provided an invaluable opportunity for Main Street leaders, community stakeholders and partner organizations to strengthen relationships and to begin defining how they can leverage each of their own resources to implement the selected transformation strategy.

It is also important to note that we have been straightforward with our Main Street organizations by discussing that it is to their benefit to choose only one or two of the proposed transformation strategies at this stage. In doing this, we have emphasized the benefits of having a focused, strategic direction to direct their limited human and financial resources and clearly define their role in downtown revitalization to other community stakeholders. In addition, limiting the number of strategies selected will help the organization define meaningful metrics that demonstrate the impact they have in fulfilling the community’s vision for downtown.

Step Two: Strategy Development at the Main Street Board Level

Once the local Main Street Board has formally selected a transformation strategy, the next step in the refresh implementation process is strategy development. Michigan Main Street works with each Board to make the strategy more specific and meaningful to their community. We do this by aligning the selected strategy with the existing vision for downtown, while also asking the Board to define what their district will look like in 3-5 years if they successfully implement the selected transformation strategy. 

                                      Board Strategy Identification Session, Charlevoix, Mich. (photo credit: Lindsey Dotson, Charlevoix Main Street)

Once the Board has developed a statement defining successful implementation of the strategy, we ask Board members to identify actionable goals that will need to be realized to achieve this success. The goals need to be specific enough that they provide guidance for committees and/or project teams as they develop work plans. Additionally, we encourage the Board to identify goals that cross the Four Points to encourage collaboration in existing programing. In order to ensure the organization is being comprehensive in its revitalization efforts, the organization’s goals are reflected and aligned under each of the Main Street Four Points. Finally, we work with the Board to develop a statement of the outcomes/measure of success that can be expected if each goal is achieved. Measures of success serve to answer the question, “What happens if we accomplish the goal?” These measures also serve as a benchmark for the Board to evaluate their success in moving the organization toward the selected transformation strategy and give them a framework for evaluating and approving work plans proposed by committees. 

Step Three: Strategy Implementation + Project Management at the Main Street Committee Level

We have decided to target 2018 work plans as the first formal deployment of selected transformation strategies in Michigan Main Street Communities. We have found that allowing Boards the time to dive into strategy development and build consensus around their selected strategy creates a sense of ownership that, we believe, is critical to sustaining a strategic approach to developing and approving the projects initiated at the committee level.  

To support the first year of strategy implementation, Michigan Main Street staff will work directly with the Board, committee leaders and committee volunteers to evaluate the alignment of new and existing programing and activities with the strategy, goals and measures of success identified by the Board. We will have the organization look at a list of current and potential projects and activities (i.e. work plans), as well as activities of partner organizations, to assess which programming best supports each of the goals identified by the Board. We will also ask the organization to identify how each activity or program aligns across the Four Points to ensure that organizations remain comprehensive in their approach to revitalization. Finally, we will discuss implementation timelines for projects that align with strategic goals, with the expectation that some activities will be short-term (1-2 years) and others will be long-term (3-5 years). 

The Main Street Board is tasked with approving projects and activities that it feels are most important to achieving the goals and measures of success they have identified. Once the Board has approved programming and activities, committees or project teams will be responsible for developing work plans that outline the tasks, budget and responsible parties for each project or activity. Committees will also develop metrics that demonstrate the impact of each project relative to the organization’s goals. 
                                                             Michigan Main Street Strategy Implementation Example

As we work with our communities to implement the refreshed Main Street Approach, we will continue to share examples and lessons learned from our experience. Additionally, we plan to feature stories and guidance from local program directors, board members and volunteers about their first-hand experience with the refreshed Main Street Approach. Be on the lookout for regular stories from Michigan Main Street communities in the coming year that we hope will help your program successfully implement the refreshed Main Street Approach. 

Lessons Learned

We have identified four early lessons in this first phase of implementing the refresh that we would like to share with your program as you consider how to approach this process in your state or community. 

Lesson 1: Tailor Implementation to Meet the Community + Main Street Organization’s Needs

When we began to roll-out the refreshed Main Street Approach to our communities, we assumed communities would identify their transformation strategy and then begin immediately implementing that strategy locally. We have found that, in-practice, implementation requires organizations to function differently than they have in the past so they need time to become comfortable with the idea of aligning programming around a strategy and, most importantly, need to have ownership of the way that the strategy will be realized in their community. In addition to the multi-step strategy and goal development process, our team found that in-depth training sessions for program directors, board members and volunteers helped to introduce the refresh concept early so that folks were already familiar with the approach before initiating the community-specific strategy development process.  In Michigan, we have hosted several state-wide training sessions to teach this new approach to conducting business on Main Street. Communicating the refreshed approach in this way, also gives local programs confidence that they are not the only organization being asked to engage in a new approach to Main Street.  

Quarterly Training with Main Street Executive Directors, Board Members and Volunteers teaching the Refreshed Main Street Approach (photo credit: Michigan Main Street Center)

We have also found that implementation is about allowing our communities to operate through a transitionary period. This new approach is not about dumping all the things that our Main Street Organizations have done to make themselves and their downtowns successful. Instead, it’s about asking our organizations to shift the way they work and begin aligning their projects and activities under their chosen transformation strategy. 

By slowing the implementation of the refreshed approach and really working with our communities to begin implementing their transformation strategies over a series of steps, we have been able to allow our communities time to feel comfortable with the new approach. We have seen that this has helped our communities embrace the refreshed approach and generate excitement within the Main Street organization and within their wide network of partner organizations.

Lesson 2: Work with the Main Street Organization to Further Define the Transformation Strategy

The transformation strategies Main Street America has created are full of opportunity, however they are intentionally broad-based. This has made it difficult for communities to feel attached to any one strategy and understand how the strategy applies to their downtown. One of the critical elements of our process has been working with our communities to further define each of their transformation strategies to be meaningful and specific to the assets and opportunities present in their downtown and community. The process of defining the transformation strategy allows the Main Street organization to explore what is unique about their downtown and community, while also specifically outlining what successful implementation will look like for their district. This has been a key component of the process as it allows the local Board to feel a sense of ownership around the strategic direction of their organization, while also helping the organization to see value in the refresh implementation process. 

We have also had success in the communities where we have taken the opportunity to create customized strategies that are based on the original transformation strategies identified by Main Street America. In the communities where we have identified a more customized strategy, a set of unique or extenuating circumstances has presented itself, which has created the need for a more tailored strategy.  Even in the case where a customized strategy has been identified for a community, we will still work with the local Board to define successful implementation, by establishing goals and measures of success that the Board will use to benchmark progress in achieving the strategy.

Lesson 3: Define Partnerships for the Implementation of Each Transformation Strategy

One of the most exciting components of the refreshed Main Street Approach is the emphasis on partnerships and engagement of community stakeholders in defining the strategic direction of downtown. It has been exciting to see our Main Street programs engage municipal leaders, business and property owners, the chamber of commerce, local school districts, community institutions and many other stakeholders in conversations about taking a more strategic approach for their community’s downtown revitalization efforts. The refresh implementation process has provided an excellent platform to engage these key stakeholders in leveraging resources around a shared strategy and unified focus for downtown.

We have found that some components of each transformation strategy are appropriate for partner organizations to begin implementing, and our communities have been able to have conversations with their partners to decide and specify which organization is better suited to take responsibility for various tasks and projects. The conversations our communities have had with their partners and key stakeholders have opened the door for collaborative downtown revitalization efforts that are aligned around the selected transformation strategy. These partnerships not only leverage additional resources for downtown, but also provide an incredible opportunity to engage the wider community to have a positive impact on downtown revitalization. 

Lesson 4: Change the Way Main Street Organizations Think + Act

The refreshed Main Street Approach requires Main Street Organizations to change the way they think and conduct business. What we have found is that we are asking our communities to begin leveraging all of their resources towards a common goal. We see the refresh as working to elevate the focus of our communities, by encouraging them to work in a strategic direction. Our communities will now be able to measure the impacts they are having relative to implementing a focused strategy, as well as continue to demonstrate their impact using the traditional data highlighting investment, job creation, facades improved, etc. 

The Main Street Refresh has had the benefit of elevating the role of our Main Street Boards within their organizations. Transformation strategies help the Boards ensure their organization is moving in a strategic, focused direction by providing them with a means to evaluate and accept projects and activities put forth by committees. As our Boards are put in charge of ensuring their organization is implementing their transformation strategy they establish metrics and measures of success against which they will be evaluated, allowing them to take on a true leadership role and to demonstrate measureable impacts in downtown revitalization. 

While this refreshed approach allows our communities to determine if they are moving the needle towards implementing their focused strategy, we have found that measuring success requires a different process for defining and collecting metrics. This has forced us to think critically about defining specific metrics with our communities and provide real examples in order to offer support and guidance to our Main Street Organizations as they go through this process.

Lastly, we expect that one of the next steps for our Main Street organizations will be evaluating their organizational structure as they move through this process to implement the refreshed Main Street Approach. We expect to see many of our organizations taking a more flexible approach to their organizational structures. Many of our communities are no longer operating with Four Point Committees, but instead have begun combining committees as the work these committees have been conducting overlap in many areas. It is very important to note that we will still ensure that the work our communities are doing is comprehensive and hitting all Four Points, as it is likely that many of the projects and activities our communities will work on will include aspects of all of the Four Points.