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Main Spotlight: Reflections on the Evolution of Main Street

June 8, 2022 | Main Spotlight: Reflections on the Evolution of Main Street | By: Mary Means, Founder of the Main Street Movement | 
Mary Means closed out the 2022 Main Street Now Conference in Richmond, Virginia, by presenting two leadership awards named in her honor at the Closing Plenary.

Spending time with you at the Main Street Now conference in Richmond gave my spirit a much-needed boost. Our times too often fill us with anxiety, worry, and sadness. Being in Richmond with you, experiencing the sheer joy of being surrounded by people who love what they’ve been called to do, filled my heart.

The too-short conversations I had with many of you, as well as with Main Street America staff, plus gleanings from the sessions I was able to sample, prompt me to offer a couple of observations:

Lighten Up. While still (eternally, if you really want my opinion) valid, the Four Point Approach is not a stone tablet checklist. It is a set of lenses through which to understand your downtown and respond accordingly. Let’s look through them for a minute.

  • Organization: Having a committee for each “Point” made sense in the 1970s, when we started out. Volunteerism has changed dramatically since then. People able and willing to volunteer are scarce now – they are way too time-crunched. It’s become even more difficult as the pandemic triggered life choices. All volunteer-based non-profits are experiencing this. The savviest are adapting by cutting down on standing committees, continuing to hold most meetings via Zoom or Teams, recruiting fresh volunteers willing to take on special tasks or short assignments, and not requiring long term commitment. Is your organizational model in need of refreshing?

  • Promotion: Special events are another holdover from the olden days of Main Street. At the time, no one was coming downtown anymore. No one. We had to give them a reason to return, to experience the changes being made. Special events were the only way to do this. It worked. Main Street organizations produced them because no one else was. Events can still be important, but producing them can be a draining time sink, not to mention burning out scarce volunteers. If still needed – and look at this “if” carefully – doing them by bringing sponsored popular events downtown through partnerships with other organizations can achieve the purpose with less investment of precious staff and volunteer time.

  • Design: Today it seems to me getting people to live in or near downtown is a missed opportunity. This takes housing. Whether upper stories, conversion of big buildings to flats, or well-scaled new residential development, having more walking traffic creates more vitality, more business for retailers. Don’t be constrained by the actual boundaries of your district, people can and will walk farther. Consider giving priority to fostering downtown living. Identify what this will take and start doing it. When you have a moment, I encourage you to check out MSA’s recently released publication, At Home on Main Street, for detailed insights on the state of housing in Main Street districts.

  • Economic Vitality: Did you know that in the next 5 – 7 years as many as 100,000 churches will close? Mainline religion is in decline everywhere. Many Main Streets boast several imposing mainline churches. Dwindling, aging congregations, rising operating costs and a built-in reluctance to change could leave your downtown with white elephant buildings more difficult to adapt than the last white elephant – department stores. Church buildings can have new life. The time to begin is now, by finding out more about this under-the-radar dilemma. Start by reading Exploring the Reuse Opportunity for Houses of Worship on Main Street on the MSA blog for an overview.

Whether you staff a downtown organization, serve on the board or volunteer, all of you are doing the vital work of seeing that things get done, making sure your downtown is a point of community pride. Step back from time to time and reflect on what’s going right, what’s happened that you played a role in creating. Pat yourself on the back. And take care of yourselves. Richmond was a firehose. Rest a bit. Then, resume play.

Thank you to each and every one of you. I learn from you every day.
#Main Spotlight