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Taming the Region and Navigating Business Mix Changes

May 3, 2022 | By: John Accordino, PhD, FAICP, Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at Virginia Commonwealth University; and Sarin Adhikari, PhD, Principal Data Manager at PlanRVA |

The Perch at Magpie Co-Working Center in Main Street Harrisonburg, VA. Permission: Planning Practice and Research .

The Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development’s (DHCD) Virginia Main Street (VMS) program is incredibly excited to co-host the 2022 Main Street Now Conference alongside Main Street America in Richmond, Virginia, May 16-18. Get to know our state, host city, and Main Street communities through this special blog series! Learn more about this topic and hear from the authors of this article by checking out their session at the conference: “Embracing the New Economy in a Changing Region,” featuring the experiences of Culpeper, Gloucester, and Danville, Virginia.
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COVID-19 has changed many things for Main Street communities. Yet, even before the onset of the pandemic, Main Street communities were already facing changes in business mix driven by the rise of online retail and other forces, as well as increases in downtown housing and tele-commuting. Although downtown development is a good thing, its direction and pace can challenge the historic character of downtown districts and create tension among stakeholders.

These and other changes are shaped by shifts in population and employment trends of the surrounding region. In fact, whether it is growing or declining, the region surrounding your Main Street community – and the regional development policies pursued by county and state governments – shape its character and prospects. And regions are changing dramatically. For the past several decades, cities of all sizes have spread continuously outward, creating expanding metropolitan and micropolitan areas that pull residents from both rural towns and central cities, and relocate them in burgeoning suburbs. Your Main Street community’s vitality and ability to maintain its integrity as an historic place may depend on how successfully you navigate changes in downtown business mix, and tame the forces of regional change and policy.

In January 2020, just before COVID-19 arrived, we conducted a national survey of Main Street program directors to learn: (a) how their district’s business mix is changing, (b) how regional policies and changes affect their Main Street community, and (c) how they navigate these forces while staying true to their mission of preservation-based economic development. Below we share the geographic distribution of the 133 responses, and summarize key findings and recommendations for practice.

Changes in Business Mix

Eighty-five percent of Main Street directors reported that the business mix in their downtowns has been evolving over the past 10 years. Major trends include:
  • Fewer storefront retailers (44%) and art galleries (40%)
  • More restaurants (75%) – including an increase in food or wine shops (51%) and more breweries and cideries (63%) – and artisans or makers (57%)

Other non-retail activities have also grown:
  • More government or nonprofit offices (55%)
  • More residents living on the second and third floors (59%)
  • More residents living in or adjacent to the Main Street boundaries

Main Street communities are also developing new connections to larger centers:
  • 33% - More offices are connected to a nearby metropolitan core area
  • 25% - More offices are connected elsewhere
  • 20% - More tele-commuting centers

Moreover, 55 percent reported that physical commuting from the town toward the center of the metro area has increased during the past decade, and 48 percent stated that tele-commuting from the town or its surrounding area has increased as well. Yet, 97 percent of respondents reported that, as of 2020, neither the state, county, or municipal governments, nor the Main Street program, had an explicit policy in place to support or plan for tele-commuting.

Regional (County) Growth Policy and Its Effect on Downtown Business Mix

Although roughly 30 percent of respondents reported that their county leadership encourages all residential and business growth in established centers—including the Main Street district— 14 percent reported that counties direct growth exclusively toward undeveloped greenfield sites, and over half reported that counties encourage growth in both greenfields and established centers.

County growth policies strongly affect the business mix in Main Street communities. Respondents who reported that the county encourages business growth mostly in greenfield sites were seven times more likely to state that there are fewer storefront retailers, 12 times more likely to state that there are fewer art galleries, almost six times more likely to state that there are fewer real estate brokers and attorneys, and 6 times more likely to report more government offices. Those who reported that the county encourages residential growth mostly in greenfield sites were close to 16 times more likely to state that downtown has fewer personal services businesses.

In short, it appears that the commercial and residential development policies adopted and implemented by counties significantly impact the economic ecosystems of Main Street communities and their historic integrity as centers for commerce, living, and culture.

Preserving Historic Integrity in the Face of Change

Half of the Main Street directors reported that changes in business mix and regional policies generate tensions between two important goals for their downtown: maintaining historic fabric and enhancing economic vitality. Conflicts between historic preservationists and economic growth advocates may be more prevalent in communities experiencing decline, but they also occur in rapidly growing areas. In fact, Main Streets in which the county encourages all residential growth to locate in established centers and Main Street districts are almost eight times more likely to state that maintaining historic fabric poses a big challenge. On the other hand, many Main Street directors expressed frustration that the county does not seem to value their communities as potential locations for economic development.

Navigating Change and Taming the Region

We asked Main Street directors to describe the tools and approaches they use to maintain historic fabric and economic vitality in the face of changes in business mix and regional policy. While they provided detailed answers that are too extensive for the purposes of this blog, we have distilled them into the following categories: regulations; financial incentives; education, outreach, promotion and marketing; new business recruitment; technical training of entrepreneurs; planning and development initiatives; communication and cooperation among stakeholders. We are happy to share detailed responses by request.

Beyond these specific tools, the big take-aways for practice from this study are as follows:

Communication Structures: Main Street directors who reported fewer tensions in balancing historic preservation with development pointed to local government administrative structures that bring the Main Street program together, through shared offices or reporting structures, with economic developers, chambers of commerce, and others, so that shared values and trust develop.

Placemaking is the Common Ground: Main Street communities may need to assert more aggressively their value to the contemporary economy primarily as high-quality, walkable places, and secondarily as guardians of historic structures. This does not mean neglecting preservation, but it may mean strategically assessing the evolving fit of new economic uses with historic structures and reviewing how disagreements between preservationists and development advocates are handled.

Tame the Region: Main Street communities are adept at requesting financial assistance from town, county, and state governments on behalf of preserving historic downtowns. But as our survey results indicate, state and county growth policies – how much and what kind of growth goes to greenfields versus Main Streets or other established centers, or the presence of fast and reliable Broadband – may have greater effects on the viability of Main Street communities. Main Street advocates would do well to play a role in the formation of regional growth policy.

We'd Like to Hear from You

Do the results of our national survey of Main Street communities reflect conditions in your community? Please take a few minutes to answer this short survey to express how your community is different from, or the same as, the national survey results outlined in this article. Take this quick, 3-minute survey here.

Join us: We are looking for “good practice” case studies of how Main Streets are collaborating effectively with local, county, and state governments to ensure that regional policies help Main Streets embrace and thrive in the new economy. We plan to publish a collection of these cases. Please let us know if you would like to participate.

For a copy of our study: “Balancing Act: Preserving Historic Fabric and Enhancing Economic Vitality in Towns in the Metropolitan Periphery,” Planning Practice & Research, 37(1) 2022, or to request the detailed list of tools currently used by Main Street communities to balance preservation with economic vitality and tame regional policy, email us here:

Author Bios

John Accordino, PhD, FAICP, is Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at Virginia Commonwealth University. His research and teaching focus on community economic development, commercial district revitalization, and regional policy and planning in the US and Europe.

Sarin Adhikari, PhD is Principal Data Manager at PlanRVA, the Richmond region’s planning district commission. His research focuses on geo-statistic analysis, regional economic development, metropolitan governance, and intergovernmental relations.

The authors thank everyone who participated in this research and Main Street America for their partnership in conducting the survey.