Staff Spotlight: Kathy La Plante, 31 Years of Main Street

October 16, 2020 | Staff Spotlight: Kathy La Plante, 31 Years of Main Street | 
Kathy La Plante at the Main Street Now Conference in Pittsburgh, 2017.

This October, Kathy La Plante, Senior Program Officer and Director of Coordinating Program Services at the National Main Street Center, is celebrating her 31st Anniversary of being a part of the Main Street movement. Before arriving at NMSC in 2007, she served as the as the Executive Director for the Chippewa Falls Main Street Program for 7 years and the Executive Director of the New Hampshire Coordinating program for over 10 years.

This week, we caught up with Kathy to hear more her journey with the Main Street movement, and get her insight how to become a successful program. Read her interview below:

When did you first learn about the Main Street movement?

Let’s see, it would have been 1985. That would have been when I was a manager of Spurgeon's Department Store in downtown Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. Our chamber had a video about the Main Street program, and he invited me and some of the other downtown retailers to watch it. We got so excited by seeing that video. We said, “We need that program here, now.”

Well Wisconsin didn't adopt the Main Street program for another four years, and Chippewa Falls didn't apply to the program until 1989. But when Chippewa Falls applied to join the program, I was in need of a job. I applied to be the executive director of their new program. At that time, I said to myself, “I could do this for two years.” That's about as long as I thought I could work with the cranky retailers, which I can say because I had been a retailer in Chippewa Falls.

That was really how I started. I thought, “Well that sounds like an interesting job. I'd like to do it, and I think I could do it for two years.” 31 years later…

How long did you stay with the local Chippewa Falls program?

Seven years. I was the executive director until we won GAMSA in 1996. That’s when New Hampshire started looking to create its statewide program. National got ahold of me and said, “Would you be interested in moving to New Hampshire? They're starting a statewide program, and we'd like them to hire somebody with experience.”

I had never been to New Hampshire, but it sounded like a neat opportunity. In the time between learning about the job and applying, I had run into Don Rypkema. I told him I was thinking about applying for the job in New Hampshire, and he said to me, “You would be a good fit there.” I thought, “Don Rypkema thinks I'd be a good fit in New Hampshire?!”

So I faxed my resume to the National Main Street Center. Unbeknownst to me, they just faxed my resume onto New Hampshire with no cover letter. I thought they were vetting me as a potential candidate, but instead they sent it right onto New Hampshire.

When I got the interview, one of the questions they asked me was, “Why should we hire somebody from outside the state with a funny accent?”

And I said, “Well you should hire the best person, but you're all the ones with the funny accent.”

They liked that.

Kathy_2.jpgWhen did you first visit New Hampshire then?

My interview for the position with the Coordinating Program was the first time I had been to New Hampshire. In 1996, plane tickets from Wisconsin to New Hampshire were $750, and I was a little Main Street manager. So my sister and I decided to take a road trip from Wisconsin to New Hampshire. We camped the whole road trip, but the day before my interview, we got a hotel so I could take a shower.

As we drove down, we went into little towns that I thought might make good Main Street communities. Littleton, right on the Vermont/New Hampshire border, was the very first New Hampshire town I drove through on that road trip, and it ended up being a GAMSA winner. Actually, in our first year of officially being a Main Street program, two of our three communities were GAMSA winners: Milford and Littleton.

I could tell the winners right off the bat.

How did you go from working with the New Hampshire Main Street Center to working for the National Main Street Center?

I was going to the Coordinator Meetings and knew the whole staff at National. So when they were at a point of hiring, Laura Atkins, the Assistant Director at that time, called me and asked if I’d be interested in working for National.

When I had thought about working for National over the years, I thought, “Well that'd be a horrible job to have.” This was before GPS, cellphones, and laptops, and I was thinking about the travel. Pulling out a map and figuring how to get from the Philadelphia airport to Milford, Delaware? I would not have wanted to do that.

But by the time Laura offered me the job in 2007, we had cellphones and GPS so I felt comfortable with the travel. Plus, I had that opportunity to stay in New Hampshire. When your job is to be on the road, why would you pay to live in a city like Chicago or DC?

Kathy seeing the sights in Siloam Springs, Arkansas during a Transformation Strategy Visit. Photo credit: Greg Phillips, Arkansas Main Street

What does your current role at the National Main Street Center look like?

In addition to being a Road Warrior, I was named the Director of Coordinating Program Services around five years ago. I'm the one that works most closely with Coordinating Programs.

I make sure we're staying in contact with our Coordinating partners. They are key to our success. They all have different needs, so they deserve more specific attention. Steve Amraen and I talk to each Coordinator individually a couple times a year. We also host the Coordinator meetings.

This role is also focused on getting more Coordinating Programs into the Network. Since my time here, we have brought in Nevada, and we have brought back a couple programs that left, like Alabama and Kansas. The next state that is almost ready to implement a program is Utah. They’ll actually be a returning program. Maybe I'll be able to add the New Hampshire program to that list someday.

How have you seen the Main Street movement evolve over the past 31 years?

The evolution has come with social media. You can reach a much larger audience, which is especially important for the Organization point. I had no social media when I started in ’89, and I just drool thinking about what we could have done if we had social media.

Another key evolution has been the Main Street Approach Refresh process that we undertook five years ago. That was an important step for the National Main Street Center to confirm that the Four Points are still absolutely the basis for how programs should operate, but it also put that greater emphasis on strategies for downtown. I think that's leading a lot of communities to be more than just event organizations. The pandemic has also made them look at that point as well.

But those Four Points stay the same. That’s the good part.

When it comes to downtown revitalization, there are no silver bullets. Given that, is there a technique or two that you've repeatedly found yourself suggesting to new Main Street programs over the past 31 years?

It's the basics. Don’t get so hung up on the events and the parties. It’s about getting the word about Main Street out in your community and building that support. Invite your coordinating program to come in and present about what Main Street is. Get people excited about it. It's not going to work if people see it as a Merchants Association. It needs to be seen as that higher-level economic development organization.

It’s all the action items under the Organization point: the fundraising, the volunteers, the public relations, and the partnerships. You should spend your first two years just work on that. You’d be setting yourself up so much better for the future.

When I do program evaluations, the biggest issue is that the community doesn’t know about Main Street or what they're doing. The program isn’t doing a good job telling their story. I meet with a Board that's tired because they're doing everything, and they don't know where to find more volunteers. It's because they never ask people to get involved, or they didn't set themselves up as an organization that was welcoming for everybody.

How would you recommend an organization get the community invested in the Main Street program?

Kathy_5.jpgJust ask people for their ideas. Have a brainstorming session, and don't call it a “work plan session.” Just say, “What should we do in downtown? Come and give us your ideas.” Put all of those ideas on a wall and let everyone vote as a group. Pick out the top-priority ideas. If somebody’s idea made it, they're probably going to volunteer to help you implement it.

When I was in Chippewa Falls, we did that at least every three years. We’d invite everybody, and they would come. Once their ideas are talked about, the people that support those ideas get on board with the initiative.

But you’ve got to pay attention to the Organization point. Too many communities say, “Oh, our Board of Directors is the Organization Committee.” But then there's no work plan that backs that up. There’s nothing that addresses how they’re increasing fundraising, volunteers, partnerships, and PR. So then it falls on the staff… Just pay attention to the Organization point early on, you'll be all set.

What advice would you give someone just starting out in the Main Street movement?

Don't be intimidated by the naysayers. If I had somebody that said something like, “I don't want that poster in my business,” I wouldn’t turn around and walk out. I’d ask why they felt that way. I would just put a plan together in my head to win them over. I just kept going back until I wore them down and got them on my side.

The naysayers might also be people who just want to keep saying, “Why are you doing that? Why aren’t you doing this?” I always kept the door open so that any naysayer who just wanted to bombard me with ideas could come talk to me. I would ask them, “How can you help us get that done?” Pretty soon I'd have more volunteers.