Blog Viewer

New Research from Brookings and the National Main Street Center on the Value of Main Street Organizations

December 1, 2020 | New Research from Brookings and the National Main Street Center on the Value of Main Street Organizations | By: Mike Powe, Ph.D., Director of Research, NMSC, and Hanna Love, Senior Research Analyst, Metropolitan Policy Program, Brookings Institution

Downtown Wheeling, WV | Credit: Wheeling Heritage Media

Today, the Brookings Bass Center for Transformative Placemaking released a new series of research briefs, developed in collaboration with the National Main Street Center, focused on the role that place governance organizations, like Main Street programs, play in revitalizing rural downtowns and promoting equitable rural economic and community development. The research briefs represent in-depth insights from on-the-ground data collection conducted in three Main Street communities between February and March 2020— Emporia, Kansas; Laramie, Wyoming; and Wheeling, West Virginia.

The Brookings Bass Center approached the study out of an interest in understanding how place-based strategies, and the place governance structures that support them, can spur economic revitalization, build resilience, and foster inclusive, vibrant, and connected rural places in the long term. For the Bass Center, Main Street organizations represent a clear subtype of place governance organizations, alongside Chambers of Commerce, civic associations, and so on, that can be critical forces in driving rural resilience.

To investigate this theory, the research briefs focus on three central questions:

  1. Whether downtown/Main Street revitalization efforts have been successful at enhancing economic, built environment, social, and civic outcomes in rural communities;
  2. Whether pre-pandemic downtown/Main Street revitalization efforts are helping rural small businesses more durably weather the COVID-19 crisis now; and
  3. What further policy and capacity-building supports are needed to ensure Main Streets not only survive the pandemic but can be key drivers of rural recovery and long-term resilience in the months and years to come.

To answer these questions, researchers from Brookings and Main Street interviewed 62 residents, business owners, Main Street staff, and other key stakeholders in the three communities, and convened four focus groups with residents and entrepreneurs. We analyzed respondents’ insights based the four pillars of the Brookings Bass Center’s transformative placemaking framework and supplemented the qualitative information from the interviews and focus groups with quantitative data gathered from the U.S. Census Bureau, Esri Business Analyst, and local data sources. You can read more about the background and context of the research in the project's introductory brief.

emporia__1_arts_district.pngEmporia, Kan. | Credit: Emporia Main Street

Our key findings detailed in the series include the following:

Main Street organizations advance local solutions to help small businesses survive and thrive. In the research brief focused on economic ecosystem outcomes, we show how:

  • Main Street organizations and place-based partners provide a critical foothold as rural communities weather the COVID-19 recession by connecting small business owners and entrepreneurs to capital and skills training. Wheeling Heritage’s Show of Hands crowdfunding event, for instance, puts entrepreneurs in front of crowds of new customers, helping businesses reach new capital and audiences. Emporia Main Street’s “Start Your Own Business” class, developed in collaboration with a local technical college and Emporia State University, and Wheeling Heritage’s partnership with Co.Starters built cohorts of new entrepreneurs that can support each other amid the pandemic. Finally, a revolving loan fund program offered by Emporia Main Street provides critical support for underserved small businesses, and intentional outreach to Hispanic and Latino-owned businesses helps increase the diversity of business ownership downtown.

  • Main Street organizations support new entrepreneurs with low-cost, low barrier-to-entry incubator spaces and with relationships that help mitigate rent costs in difficult economic times. Emporia Main Street’s small business incubator space in its office, the Wheeling Artisan Center Shop in the Wheeling Heritage office, and the Wyoming Main Street “Made on Main” program represent good examples of such efforts.

  • Main Street organizations and other place-based entities help connect small business owners to critical city, regional, and state government resources. Main Street programs were the critical connective tissue in the three communities, helping to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts and facilitate the connections needed for small businesses to withstand economic shock.

Downtown Emporia, Kan. | Credit: Emporia Main Street

Rural resilience leans on a flexible, accessible, and healthy built environment. In the research brief focused on the built environment and quality-of-life outcomes, we show how:

  • Main Street organizations play a critical role in promoting new development that bolsters density and walkability. For instance, Emporia Main Street’s “code team” joins entrepreneurs with a variety of public officials to discern potential development code challenges associated with launching businesses in a particular building. Emporia Main Street also successfully led efforts to develop 200 new upper-floor units of housing downtown, including a catalytic loft redevelopment project.

  • Rural downtown revitalization often entails enhancing access to healthy foods and by supporting farmers markets and downtown grocery stores. In all three communities, the Main Street programs were instrumental in launching successful farmers markets or supporting the launch of downtown grocery stores. As COVID-19 heightens food insecurities, the proximity and availability of fresh, healthy food is all the more important.

travel_inn_farm_wall_laramie.pngTravel Inn Farm Wall in Laramie, Wyo. | Credit: Downtown Laramie

Rural Main Streets can’t achieve inclusive economic revival without bridging social divides in their communities. In the research brief focused on social environment outcomes, we show how:

  • Main Street organizations and other place-based partners do important work in cultivating vibrant, active downtowns where people want to live and stay, but COVID-19 presents new challenges for events, third spaces, and downtown programming. In Emporia, the two marquee events, the Glass Blown Open disc golf tournament and the Dirty Kansa bicycle race, were cancelled due to the pandemic, as were events in virtually all Main Street communities. How Main Street programs creatively adapt to COVID-19 will be a critical question in the months ahead.

  • Long-standing divisions can persist despite downtown revitalization efforts, and Main Street programs have the opportunity to focus attention on bridging divisions as they look toward recovery. Whether the barriers are economic, racial, cultural, or purely geographical, more work could be done to ensure public spaces, events, and businesses are truly inclusive and welcoming.

Community members pose in front of the fish mural in downtown Laramie, Wyo. | Credit: Downtown Laramie

Rural communities build resilience through a strong network of community-led civic structures. In the research brief focused on civic outcomes, we show how:

  • Main Street organizations act as a central supportive structure for small business absent adequate public sector support, nurturing a resilient network of locally-owned small businesses downtown. Overwhelmingly, small business owners described Main Street as their go-to resource for support—a relationship that has only expanded amid COVID-19, as local Main Street organizations rapidly shift their models to assist with disaster relief funding, offer additional funding streams, and engage in intensive direct counseling with small business owners in need.

  • Main Street organizations support the development of other formal organizations and networks among residents and small businesses, which in turn cultivates the community relationships needed to build resilience. Whether it’s the Laramie Public Art Coalition, the partnership between Emporia Main Street and Hispanics of Today and Tomorrow (HOTT), or the efforts of Wheeling Heritage with the Women’s Giving Circle to steer investment to women entrepreneurs, Main Street programs build civic capacity in powerful ways.

  • Main Streets have the opportunity to move past institutionalized systems of governance and meaningfully engage residents of color and low-income residents in civic life. Challenges with traditional participatory mechanisms are not unique to Main Street communities, but as public engagement processes become even more complicated amid COVID-19, increasing outreach to underserved residents is even more critical.

There is much more detailed information in the full set of briefs, including more creative approaches and solutions from the three case study communities that can be adapted and tailored to other rural small towns' local contexts. In addition to their potential for inspiring new ideas, we hope the series can serve as a tool for Main Street organizations to advocate for greater support for your programs. The Brookings-NMSC collaborative research illuminates ways local Main Street programs are at the vanguard of rural downtown revitalization and the ways Main Street can be critical to community resilience and recovery.

This research was aided greatly by the participation and support of the Main Street managers in the three case study communities: Alex Weld in Wheeling, Casey Woods in Emporia, and Trey Sherwood in Laramie. We appreciate their support.

View full set of briefs on or jump to specific briefs using quick links below:

Brief 1:
Why Main Streets are a key driver of equitable economic recovery in rural America

Brief 2: Rural small business need local solutions to survive

Brief 3: The necessary foundations for rural resilience: A flexible, accessible, and healthy built environment

Brief 4: Rural Main Streets can’t achieve true economic revival without bridging social divides

Brief 5: Creating a shared vision of rural resilience through community-led civic structures