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Main Street: A Place for a More Connected Economy in a World of Dispersion

August 4, 2021 | Main Street: A Place for a More Connected Economy in a World of Dispersion | By: Matthew Wagner, Ph.D., Chief Program Officer, Main Street America | 

Much of our economic attention over the last few years in the Main Street world has been focused on the “experiential” economy; one in which people shop with small businesses because it speaks to their particular lifestyle, gives them the ability to tell a story, or leads to a highly unique purchase. Over the last 18 months we have spent considerable time understanding impacts and trends inherent within the COVID-induced economy. However, the reality is that both forms have existed as a microcosm within a much larger emerging era that Professor Scott Galloway of New York University hailed the “Great Dispersion.”

The Dispersion Economy, which follows an era defined by globalization and then digitization, is described as “the distribution of products and services over a wider area where and when they’re needed most, bypassing gatekeepers and removing unnecessary friction and cost.” Examples exist all around us from the growing trend of releasing movies on streaming platforms instead of theaters to the emergence of telemedicine, which is 38 times more prevalent now than in February 2020. And while both may seem like outcomes from the global pandemic, they were simply accelerated forms of dispersion happening well before COVID – think Blockbuster to Netflix, and of course the growth of Amazon.

The Dispersion Economy is as disruptive to our lives as other economic eras, creating challenges along with presenting unique benefits. More familiar benefits include the ability to decouple one’s job from a particular location, emerging access to health care (telemedicine), and growing education options with online degrees making it more convenient and likely available at a lower cost. However, there are immense consequences of dispersion that we are seeing firsthand resulting in tribalism and social isolationism. For example, the office is more than a place of work, it is an equalizer, as Esther Perel said. Meeting people from different backgrounds, seeing people on your commute, or having a spontaneous lunch with someone you barely know create opportunities for chance connections that can result in understanding, future partnerships, to ideation and innovation. These are the kinds of encounters we witness everyday along our Main Streets. In many ways, dispersion represents another form of silo- making, further reducing the opportunity for the cross pollination of ideas, and creating group think leading to stagnation.

What the Dispersion Economy provides by way of opportunity, it lacks in any form of connectiveness. While we have all grown appreciative of the likes of Zoom, Google Meet, and Microsoft Teams, as humans we gain energy, reflection, and contentment from being around one another. Why else go and pay six dollars for a cup of coffee so you can work at your laptop at your local café? As such, I would argue that Main Streets as a focal point of community and neighborhood, have a pivotal role and responsibility to use our Approach and methodology in a manner that results in a more “Connected Economy.” There is intentionality in using this word: “Connect” means to join, bind, bring together. In the past, connectivity in the form of the Main Street Approach has largely revolved around activities like volunteerism, special events, and being a connector to technical and financial resources for small businesses. Dispersion will necessitate additional forms of connectivity as they further disrupt the very reasons so many people use our Main Streets on a daily basis. Further adaptation will require an approach that uses place-based economic tactics in a form that couples access with engagement.

Here are some everyday examples and emerging opportunities for Main Streets:

1. Technical Resources for Small Businesses. The Great Dispersion provides the ability to connect our small businesses to data, trends, mentorship, etc., from anywhere in the world, offering areas of specialization that may not be present within our own community. But, as any seasoned revitalization professional knows, you can provide a webinar or create a business resource directory and 95 percent of small business owners will still claim they had no idea these resources existed. Main Street executive directors are the connectors and the economic development wholesalers that the Dispersion Economy attempts to decouple from the relationship. Yet, Main Streets have stood strong against this threat. Research from MSA during COVID demonstrated that Main Streets are the shining stars when it comes to connecting small businesses to financial and technical resources.

Main Street America Small Business Survey – May 2020

2. Heath care is a sector of the economy that is ripe for dispersion. Telemedicine is a prime example as to how the use of technology can provide convenience and access to underserved areas of our country. And while we have witnessed increasing closures and/or consolidations with rural hospitals, Main Street pharmacies could offer telemedicine stations as healthcare hubs, providing access to high-speed internet for video consultations, answering questions, and having the ability to quickly fill prescription needs. It is not as big of leap as it may sound, given that so many are already providing vaccines.

3. While not necessarily new, there is a large opportunity for Main Streets to connect remote workers. A February 2021 report from McKinsey found about 20 to 25 percent of the workforces in advanced economies could work from home between three and five days a week. This represents four to five times more remote work than before the pandemic and could prompt a large change in the geography of work, as individuals and companies shift out of large cities into suburbs and small cities. Based on data from 2019, the 2020 State of Remote Work report states that loneliness is the biggest struggle remote workers say they face, tied with problems of collaboration and communication. Using place-based tactics ranging from the development of co-working spaces to leveraging third spaces (salons, breweries, libraries, coffee houses), we can address these important issues, while creating important activity within our districts.

4. Even the fitness industry has succumbed to the dispersion. Peloton bikes, for example, experienced a 172% increase in sales in 2020, as people scrapped gym memberships and began to create online sessions akin to a spin class at the local fitness center. While there is merit in not having to drag yourself to the gym, recent use data suggests that there are important connections that can be created through trail-oriented development, creating bike lanes (or even street closures for Sunday rides in downtown), or holding yoga classes in a neighborhood park. Using weekly trail use data from Rails to Trails, MSA calculated that trail use has increased on average by 39 percent from 2019 to 2021. The new Infrastructure Bill being discussed at the Federal level should only provide more resources to further connections to our commercial districts further bridging social engagement.

5. Higher education is also undergoing significant dispersion. Starting with online degrees, there are emerging private sector players creating professional- and micro-certifications (think Microsoft and Adobe). Regardless, trend lines would suggest an increased decoupling of classrooms from educational content. However, like we discovered during the pandemic with great disparities among student learning relative to device, technology and teacher access, human connection is a powerful tool in learning. While I applaud the growth of opportunities for learning from anywhere and creating technology access that allows for students to be able to stay in their local communities, I foresee the creation of “co-learning” centers along our Main Streets whether in libraries, cafes, or as standalone developments like co-working spaces.

6. A dialogue around the Great Dispersion wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the profound impact on consumerism. Coupled with the global pandemic, dispersion has introduced tremendous growth in digital commerce and even the development of delivery and pick-up services among the smallest bricks and mortar retailers. But only the foolish would suggest the demise of bricks and mortar. While national chains, especially in the accelerated transition of apparel markets to online, have led many in the media to question the viability of physical stores….oh ye of little faith to doubt the power of Main Street. Our research within local communities* suggests consumers remain committed to shopping local and continue to seek experiences, and yes “connections,” as an evolving form of quality of life, akin to the desire for great parks and schools. Look for Main Street businesses to embrace the access to multiple market dimensions of the Great Dispersion, but represent the only form of retailing that can combine the digital marketplace with the unique experiences and social connectivity found within a community.



The global pandemic gave us all a glimpse of a further dispersed future – a time when you don’t sit in a classroom at school, watch movies in a theater, or even go to the grocery store. Some people may wonder why revitalization professionals should be concerned about the ramifications of Dispersion given its potential opportunities. Still others may wonder about our role…”shouldn’t we be focused on the fundamentals of revitalization?” However, if revitalizing our Main Streets is simply a pursuit of quantitative economic improvements, is that truly an accurate reflection of success? I would argue that the fundamental difference between failed place models of the past (think office parks and regional shopping malls) is they were less agile and importantly lacked connection. For all the potential of Dispersion, our role is to lead in a way that ensures downtown is not just a place with nice buildings, great businesses, and fun things to do, but a connected community.

*In local surveys from five programs in Oakland County, MI, Martinsville, VA and Kendallville, IN

Meet the Author

MW_bio_pic.pngMatthew Wagner, Ph.D., Chief Program Officer: Matthew Wagner, Ph.D. serves as Chief Program Officer at the National Main Street Center, Inc. In this role, he is responsible for driving the Center’s field service initiatives including the development and delivery of technical services for Main Street America and Urban Main programs, directing the Center’s research agenda, as well as the recently launched New Business Development work to focus on national partnerships, brand leveraging and new business growth areas.

Read Matthew's bio.