Main Spotlight: Creating an Exchange of Ideas, Perspectives, and Relationships

January 22, 2020 | Main Spotlight: Creating an Exchange of Ideas, Perspectives, and Relationships | By: Michael Wagler, Main Street Iowa Coordinator, Iowa Economic Development Authority |1_21_Blog_IA_Header_3_having_fun.jpgMain Street Exchange Visits allow for program volunteers to build relationships and have fun visiting a new downtown. Photo credit: Main Street Centerville 

I recently had the experience of walking into a downtown business with my kids. As we walked around the store, we started to notice several small things that the business owner could do to improve our experience within her shop. My family is not a bashful bunch, so we decided to ask the business owner what she thought of our observations: front windows had cobwebs in them, the front door handle was loose and made the door hard to open, the welcome mat was really ragged, etc. The shop owner’s immediate comment was, “I always come in my back door, I have my morning routine, and I guess all of that just became a ‘normal’ part of my store.” After our conversation, she thanked us for our comments and reiterated that our fresh look at things really opened her eyes.  

Now, imagine that experience multiplied to all of the Main Street districts across a state. This was the concept behind the 2019 Main Street Exchange Visits in Iowa. The hope was to get people looking with new eyes, thinking in different ways, interacting with peers, forging new relationships, and traveling beyond the bounds of their own communities for inspiration.  

The Concept

The Main Street Exchange was modeled after the ‘first impression’ exchange process. The idea of first impressions exchange is nothing new or unique to Iowa. These types of community exchanges have been happening for years. In a nutshell, an exchange visit: 

  • Connects two peer communities together. 
  • Each community recruits volunteers to visit their partner community in a ‘secret shopper’ style.
  • Volunteers observe the community gateways, parking experiences, customer service, public spaces, and downtown amenities. 
  • Observations are documented through a consistent survey tool. 
  • Data is collected and presented back to leaders of the visited community. 

Throughout the spring and summer months of 2019, 52 Main Street Iowa communities were conducting first impression exchanges with peer communities. Local Main Street Executive Directors and task forces took lead on setting up the exchange visits, organizing volunteers, completing surveys, and analyzing data. After each visit was complete, the Executive Directors would visit each other’s communities to present the findings and facilitate a discussion on steps to move these observations to action.  

Main Street Iowa set out six primary goals for the Main Street Exchange process.    

  1. Build partnerships between Main Street districts and programs 
  2. Engage community leaders with the Main Street program in a different way
  3. Provide Main Street Executive Director professional development
  4. Create a positive statewide PR effort of community sharing and partnership 
  5. Provide unbiased insight from a visitors’ perspectives about the Main Street district
  6. Focus on taking action through small projects with big impact potential
The exchange visits allowed volunteers to explore and bring back new ideas for their district. Photo credit: Main Street Iowa


Each community’s experience through the exchange process was different but most take-aways fell into three categories: New Project Ideas, New Perspective and Energy, New Partnerships and Volunteers.  

  • 40% commented that this process brought new, and in many cases obvious, issues to their attention that could be easily addressed.
  • 37% commented that this process gave their Main Street program a fresh perspective on their district and built motivation to get things done. 
  • 23% commented that this process forced them to forge new partnership and created an opportunity for new program volunteers. 

Many communities used the Main Street Exchange process to move to action in new ways. In one case, four communities in the same region decided to schedule regular meetings in each other’s communities to have the visiting directors conduct ‘mini assessments’.  In another case, the local Main Street program approached the high school to invite students to use the survey tool to assess their own community. The students later presented their observations and ideas back to the Main Street Board of Directors.   

There are also many examples where Main Street programs used the results and documented comments from visitors to reinforce or push local initiatives with their city partners.  In a specific case, the Main Street program used their observations about new ways to approach downtown parking to encourage new and positive conversations about parking in their own community. Other communities used the Exchange as an opportunity build awareness about Main Street through stories with local TV stations and media outlets.

Moving to Action 

In some ways as we travel, we are all naturally conducting our own first impression exchanges, gaining inspiration from the places we visit, and, whether we say it out loud or not, creating a list of things that the place could do to be better. If this exchange process intrigues your community, here are a few ideas to move to action: 

  1. Coordinating Main Street Program: Talk to you Main Street Coordinator. Even if they don’t facilitate a formal exchange visit program, they may be able to connect you with a peer community in your region. 
  2. University Extension Program: In many cases, University Extensions have a first impressions program in place already. There are nice examples of first impression programs through the University of Connecticut Extension and University of Wisconsin Extension.
  3. Regional Tourism Groups: Often times, statewide and/or regional tourism groups operate first impression-type programs to improve destination creation efforts.
  4. Reach Out to a Peer Community: Nine times out of ten, a neighboring community would be more than happy to partner with your community in this way. It is truly a win-win situation. Don’t be bashful, reach out to a peer community and get started!
  5. Go It Alone: Grab a van, get a group of people together, and commit to spending a day together exploring another community’s downtown. It is always amazing how a critical eye in another community will help break the routine of your current view of your own community.
  6. Get Creative with Partnerships: Connect with your school, young professional’s group, other civic organizations, etc, to see if they would be willing to conduct a first impressions exchange in your own community.

Before we wrap up, I want to come back to that shop owner who was gracious enough listen to my family’s observations of her store…and not chase us out. I was walking by her store a few months later and decided to stop in to say hi. There was a new door handle, a Shop Small door mat, and the store was completely reset and merchandised! She told me that she has now started to use her front door at least once a week. With that change in routine, she started to see her store through the customer’s eyes and is now constantly observing small ways to improve the customer experience.  

It doesn’t take a formal program to create a new perspective on your everyday place. My challenge to you: change up your daily routine just enough to get out of your comfort zone, force you to think about what you are doing, and observe your surroundings through a new perspective.   
1_21_Blog_IA_Header_4_having_fun.jpgMain Street Exchange Visits allow for program volunteers to build relationships and have fund visiting a new downtown. Photo credit: Waverly Chamber of Commerce Main Street

Author Bio

Michael Wagler is the Main Street Iowa Coordinator at the Iowa Economic Development Authority. Wagler provides technical support and leadership for the implementation of the Main Street Approach in 55 Main Street programs across Iowa. With over 20 years of downtown revitalization experience, he is passionate about exploring new ideas for breathing life back into downtown., 515.348.6184