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Refreshed Main Street Approach™

 By Matt Wagner,Vice President of Revitalization Programs, NMSC, and Hannah White, Director of Outreach and Engagement, NMSC| From Main Street Story of the WeekFeb. 2, 2017 |

Independent business in the North Limestone district in Lexington, Ky.

As we prepare to roll-out new materials and trainings aligned with the refreshed Main Street Approach™, we’re pleased to present a
series on the Refresh, providing you with background on how we got here, what we’ve learned through the process, and where we’re headed. This first installment is an article originally published in State of Main.

Keep an eye out for the next installment profiling implementation of the new approach currently underway in Michigan. Our partners at the Michigan Economic Development Corporation are the first coordinating program to implement the new approach in every community, and we have lots of practical takeaways to share.

Since the Main Street movement’s beginning over 35 years ago, the Four Point Approach has provided a critical road map for communities of all stripes and sizes, giving them a framework for transforming their downtown economies, rallying volunteers, and celebrating their historic character. As the Main Street America network knows well, the four points taken together—Organization, Promotion, Design, and Economic Vitality—are truly greater than the sum of their parts. With over $65.6 billion reinvested,  60,011 buildings rehabilitated, and 556,960 net new jobs, it is no exaggeration to say that Main Street programs—with the Four Point Approach in hand—have played a critical role in the revival of America’s downtowns over the last several decades.

However, the community revitalization field, and our economy more generally, has changed dramatically since 1980. New realities like the changing face of commerce, increasing income inequality, and shifting demographics are impacting every community, from small rural towns to busy urban commercial districts. And within the Main Street America network, there has been a growing recognition that elements of the time-tested approach are in need of updating. New forms of funding and different kinds of organizational structures are not always compatible with a strict adherence to the four committee model, and the ever-increasing focus on outcomes among funders necessitates greater focus documenting and communicating impact.

To address these issues, and to ensure the continued success of the Main Street model, the National Main Street Center began what has come to be known as the Main Street Refresh, a process through which we have engaged with experts and long-time practitioners within the Main Street network, as well as leaders from other related fields. The result is a new, “refreshed,” Main Street Approach that preserves what has always worked so well about the model—its comprehensive nature and community-driven orientation—and infused it with a new strategic focus.

Thanks to funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, as well as support from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and several of our Coordinating Program partners, we have had the opportunity to test out this new approach in a number of different communities over the past year. Some of these pilot sites, like Biloxi, Miss., and Steamboat Springs, Colo., have existing Main Street programs in place, providing us with a chance to better understand how the new approach can integrate with existing Main Street structures and work-flow. Others, like Jefferson Chalmers in Detroit, Mich., and the East End and North Limestone districts in Lexington, Ky., are non-Main Street communities where we are able to test out how the new approach resonates with those who have less familiarity with the “old model,” as well as see how it fits in a variety of organizational structures.

The fundamental components of the new Main Street Approach are:

  1. Inputs: Community Engagement and Market Understanding;
  2. Transformation Strategies: implemented through the Four Points; and
  3. Impact: Qualitative and Quantitative Outcomes.

                                                                                                    Norma Ramirez de Miess and Kennedy Smith leading a community engagement exercise in Milledgeville, Ga.

In each of the pilot sites, representatives from the National Main Street Center have worked with local partner organizations to go through the steps of the new approach. In each case, community leaders have been provided with basic market data so they can better understand what the economic realities are, where the gaps may be, and where the potential lies. But, market data only captures a small (though useful!) snapshot of the realities on the ground in a community. This is where community engagement comes in. While engagement can take many forms, from online surveys to community meetings to online discussion platforms to interactive in-person polling, the key is getting broad participation, and ensuring that people feel their voices are heard.

                         Kathy La Plante and Josh Bloom go through the steps of the refreshed approach with Kristine Borchers, Executive Director of Lake City Downtown Improvement and Revitalization Team (DIRT), in Lake City, Colo.

With these key elements—market data and community input—in hand, Center staff worked with local programs to select their community transformation strategies.

Transformation strategies provide direction for the revitalization initiative, and are implemented through work across the four points. For instance, the Main Street program in Milledgeville, Ga.—home to a large student population—will be focusing on a transformation strategy aimed at better serving the needs of the millennial population, while supporting their entrepreneurial potential. The North Limestone district in Lexington, Ky., will be working on a convenience goods and services strategy aimed at better serving the day-to-day needs of local residents. Over the course of the pilot program, we have learned that some programs can readily implement transformation strategies using the more traditional four committee model, while in other contexts, programs are finding that leveraging ad hoc working groups, task forces, and partnerships proves more effective.
A sample transformation strategy-based work plan from Lexington, Ky.

With strategies and work plans in place, our pilot sites are moving on to implementation. As in all Main Street work, revitalization takes time and is achieved incrementally. However, the new Main Street Approach recognizes the importance of setting benchmarks, measuring incremental progress, and focusing on short- and long-term impact. So, we have been working with each local partner to develop a list of qualitative and quantitative outcomes that are not too burdensome to collect, but that can be powerful indicators of positive change over time.

After a year of planning, and a year of testing the new approach on the ground, we are eager to share what we have learned with the entire network. In the coming months, we will be rolling out a suite of new resources, including publications, videos, webinars, and train¬ing opportunities that will be available for the Main Street America network. We look forward to sharing what we have learned, and learning from you as you put the new approach to work revitalizing your own communities.