January 28, 2020 | Fighting Back Against Apathy: The Beatrice, NE, Approach to Defeating Negativity | By: Michael Sothan, Executive Director, Main Street Beatrice |
Beatrice from the Sky. Photo credit: Main Street Beatrice, NGage, and the Beatrice Area Chamber
History, people, and the things we as a society find important: these are the forces that often shape a community’s story. In most cases, it is a story best shared by those who are personally familiar with that community—those who reside within and take pride in the place they call home. But what happens when a community no longer has widespread confidence in that story? When the conversation about the community at the local bakery or at the office becomes dominated by “downtown is dying” and “this town will never be the same?”
That was the situation facing Beatrice, Nebraska. Those feelings linger, but they have been challenged with recent community betterment efforts and successes. The community is fighting against apathy to make sure its story is one of pride and promise, rather than one of lamenting over what was.
As a Main Street director, it can be hard to deal with and combat negativity about our communities and downtowns. In the work that we do, we often see positives and opportunities within our community. The challenge is that many others do not. Understanding common perceptions was one of the things that has helped Main Street Beatrice and the community push back against damaging perceptions and apathy and take fresh steps toward growth.
Being new to Main Street and to the community, it took time for me to become fully aware of the negative perceptions that many held about Beatrice. At first, I did not fully understand or appreciate how those perceptions had developed or the impacts they were having on the community. Over time, I learned that this negativity was overshadowing any potential for growth. Economic data gave reason for hope and pointed to a stronger-than-expected economic base, but this was not how many residents perceived our town.
Words used to describe downtown Beatrice in 2017. Photo credit: Barman Development Strategies, LLC
A negative perception had become their reality, but the origins of their negativity were not unfounded; the community had experienced several economic setbacks in recent decades. Major hits to local manufacturing sectors were fresh on everyone’s minds. Not unlike typical Rust Belt communities, working class and blue-collar jobs were disproportionately affected by the economic shift. Beatrice has a large population of working-class families, with many living in the community for multiple generations. They had family members who worked at the factories that shuttered their doors, or at the downtown department stores that were now vacant storefronts. Their memory of “what was” would always outweigh the potential for what “could be.” The fact was that while Beatrice had changed, it was indeed holding its own.
For our community to affect change, we had to understand this perception of negativity and defeatism that had become reality for many residents. As community leaders, we needed to face these very real thoughts and not just brush them aside. We needed to take purposeful steps to combat these perceptions and secure a reason for hope: a reason for believing in our community again. When a downtown building collapsed in 2014, moving forward with this approach became critical. This situation was a glaring example of how avoiding that perception had come at a high cost. Changing perception and combating apathy had to be part of the equation with future civic leaders, economic development, and all community initiatives.
Fighting Back & Making A Plan
We were in the wake of community-wide economic set-backs, which were being magnified by a perception of stagnation and decay. This perception issue was cultivating apathy. Community leaders, including myself, did not take major concretive steps to address this daunting issue until 2015.
In that year, we came together and started working on a plan that would help facilitate change in Beatrice. It started with teamwork. Before now, the relationship between groups such as Main Street, City government, Chamber of Commerce, economic development, and public schools had limited interactions, and at times were downright adversarial. It took time for our organizations to find ourselves at the same table, but once we arrived, we set a course that would help change begin. At first, it was simple things: a monthly lunch meeting of the organizations to better understand each other. We broadened those meetings and sought community input. Our early efforts culminated in a community-wide branding effort
that visually and mentally brought us all closer together. It also gave us a positive narrative about our community from which we could all start.
From this, we began to base our action steps on data and studies. Deciding to take action was key. These efforts allowed us to be more confident and focused as we took steps to launch projects and support those who could make the difference on the streets of our community.
The Change Takes Shape
For years, we had known there was obvious potential within all of Beatrice. That potential seemed locked away—limited by an apathetic mindset and excuses we are all familiar with. However, in 2016, signs of a positive shift began to take hold.
Downtown Beatrice. Photo credit: Main Street Beatrice
A new wine and craft beer tasting room opened, followed by a cascade of new shops. We were successful in staving off the closure or relocation of long-standing downtown anchors. The collapsed building mentioned earlier became a fine outdoor dining space. Several buildings found new life and new tenants, including a crumbling 21,000 square foot building rehabilitated to house a brewery, prohibition-inspired craft cocktail bar, women’s clothing boutique, cigar shop, and ceramic studio. Since 2016, downtown alone has seen the net gain of 22 businesses (office, retail, nightlife, and art), the creation of over 125 jobs, and the investment of nearly $5 million in over 50 improvement projects.
Adding to this newfound success, Beatrice was named the #1 micropolitan community in Nebraska—#14 nationally—for large scale (mostly manufacturing) economic development projects by Site Selection Magazine
This rapid change happened because people believe this community is worth fighting for, is worth investing in, and is worth supporting.
Going forward, we hope to win over more of our community to ensure Beatrice and our downtown continue to grow. Winning over hearts and minds has been key to creating investment. We have plenty of challenges remaining; however, they do not seem as daunting when we have proven to ourselves that we can rise to the challenge.
Six Lessons Learned
Find the Forest Through the Trees
Sometimes we get so caught up with trying to run a Main Street program—keeping up with events, meetings, and plans—that we miss the big picture issues. Oftentimes, the issues we miss or avoid go beyond our office door and our downtowns.
Working through community politics and personalities can be challenging. However, Main Street is about instilling transformation, and transformation takes a team. Do not be afraid to broaden your circle to include outside organizations.
Your efforts will be more successful when part of a data-driven plan. Data does not have to be daunting—even the most basic knowledge gives your plan creditability, and a better chance of success and standing the test of time.
There is no better time than now! Even the smallest of actions and efforts at positive communication can challenge negativity and open doors to greater success.
Know that Set-Backs & Burnout Will Happen
Be patient with yourself and with your plan. This is an effort that wins over time and not overnight. Yes, it is true: the work will never be done, but it is rewarding.
Positivity is perhaps the strongest weapon in fighting apathy and finding success. One thing we learned is that you cannot let your positivity cover up the challenges and threats still facing your efforts. When people only hear or see the positives, they will start to think, “Mission Accomplished.” When premature, this can be counterproductive to your transformation process and lessen the drive to push forward action plans.
For more information about Main Street Beatrice or to contact Michael Sothan, please visit www.mainstreetbeatrice.org.#EquitableandInclusiveCommunityDevelopment#PeopleManagementandWorkPlanning#NewsandStories#Blogs#MainSpotlight