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Main Spotlight: Nine Years at Main Street - Lessons and Reflections

July 5, 2022 | Main Spotlight: Nine Years at Main Street - Lessons and Reflections | By: Patrice Frey, President and CEO, Main Street America | 

At the Opening Plenary at the Main Street Now Conference in Richmond, Virginia, Patrice Frey shared lessons and reflections from her past nine years at Main Street. Today, we are pleased to share a written version of her speech that offers up additional words of advice and wisdom on how Main Streets can chart a prosperous path ahead. Please join us in thanking Patrice for her years of service as our President and CEO! If you haven’t already, please view her parting words to the Network here.

Main Street *Is* Economic Development

One of the most exciting things I’ve seen over the last decade is the way in which perceptions about the value of Main Street’s work are changing – and for the positive.

Since my earliest days on the job, I’ve found that Main Street’s work can sometimes be dismissed as being a bit frivolous and unimportant to a community’s larger economic development effort. I bet many of us have encountered it, the belief that Main Street programs are just about putting on fun events or saving pretty, old buildings.

I think of this as getting the Church Lady Treatment – the dismissive arched eyebrow that says "Well isn’t that special. But that’s not real economic development." It’s maddening.
During these last two years, Main Street leaders proved their mettle in rallying to the defense of small businesses and to the support of communities during an unimaginably difficult time. I have heard from so many of you that you felt the pandemic was the first time your communities truly understood what you do, and why it matters so much.

The pandemic-fueled revaluation of Main Street programs coincides with another powerful force – and that is the profound way in which the nature of economic development itself is changing, making what we do in creating quality of life and supporting local business more – not less – important.

No one speaks more eloquently about the nature of changing economic development than Main Street America’s Chairman Emeritus, Ed McMahon. Last month, Ed penned an op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch which eloquently explains this change. He notes that in a world where people and capital are footloose, the quality of the community is of critical new importance in economic development. I encourage you to check out his other thought leadership pieces on this topic here and here.
The quality of the community is what attracts and retains jobs. The quality of the community is what attracts visitors. And Main Street is in the quality-of-life business.

Our challenge is to accelerate those changes in perceptions. I want to come back to one very specific request about how to do that at the end.

Ask for What You Need

Sometime toward the beginning of the pandemic, when things were especially tough and scary, I put a Post-it Note next to my computer with a reminder. It was a simple thought that had popped into my mind: “Ask for what you need.”

As non-profit leaders, we often try to “make do” with what we’ve got or what we’re offered, which is almost never equal to what we need to effectively do our jobs. I’ve tried to be more mindful about asking for what is needed to succeed, what we as an organization must have to be effective.
Sometimes that has meant asking funders to provide considerably more administrative support than they would normally offer, which many are reluctant to do. Or it’s meant telling partners that we can’t accommodate an aggressive timeline, and asking for more time. I wish I could say that I’ve been 100% successful – sometimes the answer is "no". Yet irrespective of the outcome, I’ve felt better about trying to establish boundaries, and about speaking honestly about what is needed, rather than scraping by with what’s on offer.

So, take a moment. Grab a pen. What’s the first thing you think of when you hear “ask for what you need?”

Write it down…and then make the ask. Repeat for best results.

Re-evaluate Your Events
I was once accused of not liking events. I’d like to correct the record – I love a good event!

But here’s the thing. In so many of our Main Street communities, we see Main Street Directors who feel obligated to put on annual/monthly/weekly events that require a tremendous amount of time and resources, and don’t always deliver the needed strategic impact.
Your time as a Main Street leader is your most valuable resource. Guard it fiercely.

As you’ll see below, there are an ever-increasing number of demands on this time, an ever-expanding number of issues that require your leadership.

So, take a few moments to think about those events. Which are really, truly aligned with the strategies you’ve developed to bring people and prosperity to your Main Street? Which are not? For the latter, are there other organizations who might take that event(s) for you? Or could you switch the cadence to every other month/year so it requires less of your time?

Or maybe it’s time to let it go altogether…

Remember the 20-60-20 Rule of Change Management

Main Streeters are Change Agents – we come to the profession wanting to support the transformation of places that we love. But change is hard.

A few years back, I was introduced to what I think is one of the most important guidelines for change management, the 20-60-20 Rule.
Before I get into that, however, I want to make one important point. Our role as Main Street leaders, of course, is never to unilaterally decide on a path of change. The core of Main Street is working collaboratively with stakeholders to develop a shared vision of change….and then working with partners to implement that vision.

Many of us are drawn to non-profit work because we care deeply about people, we’re naturally “helpers.” And so, it can be challenging – to say the least – to go through the process of collaborating to build a vision for change, and then realize that, inevitably, some people do not embrace this vision.

That’s where the 20-60-20 Rule is helpful.

In any sort of change management situation, you can generally expect 20 percent of people will be enthusiastic supporters, eager to embrace the new vision. These are your change champions, your most highly engaged and ardent supporters. This 20 percent will inspire the next tranche – the 60 percent– to support that change effort as well. That 60 percent will tend to hang back a bit first, and then be swayed by the positive momentum of your early supporters.
And then there is that final 20 percent, the constituency that will focus on their fears and their doubts. In short, these are the folks who are unlikely to ever support the change in question.

Our job is to first and foremost seek to understand and be curious about those voicing their concerns. Is there something these folks see that we do not? Some valuable piece of information we’ve missed or disregarded? If so, we’d be wise to adapt.

Or perhaps, as Alabama Main Street Coordinator Mary Helmers describes them, these folks are simply your Grumpies. We all know them, folks who are most happy when they’re a bit unhappy. And that’s when it’s important to remind yourself:

Your job is not to make 100% of people happy, or 100% of people comfortable.

Your job is to lead the 80%. Your job is to lead change.

Be the Connector

In many ways, it might be more difficult to be a small business owner today than in previous times. The competition – especially online – is thick. The technology needed to run a business is complex. Breaking through information overload online to effectively market your business can itself feel like a full-time job. Labor is scarce. Capital is in short supply for small business – especially for people of color and those in smaller markets

If we are to create a downtown or district in which commerce thrives, Main Street leaders increasingly must be able to support their small business owners – or would be entrepreneurs – with the resources needed to navigate this thicket of questions and uncertainty. And the pandemic only intensified this need, as small businesses experienced economic pressures unlike anything in recent memory. In recent years, led by our Chief Program Officer Matt Wagner, we've begun to think of Main Street programs as connectors at the heart of entrepreneurial ecosystems. Main Streets are well-positioned to step up in new ways on behalf of their businesses.

What does it mean to be a connector in this sense? It’s a natural extension of the role Main Street organizations have always played. Fortunately, leading an effective Main Street program doesn’t mean you have to be able to offer detailed advice on point-of-sale systems, pro forma development, or any other subject; it does mean that it’s essential you know who in your community, region, and state can help business owners as they grapple with tough questions and you can connect folks needing service to those providing it.

With thanks to the Kauffman Foundation and other partners, we have some terrific resources on our website to help you learn more about entrepreneurial ecosystems, and your role as a connector. We also have an amazing field services team that can help you build on these.

Make All Welcome

There’s another way I believe we’re called on to be connectors – that is making connections with those in our communities who historically may not have felt welcome downtown or who have not been included in local economic development activity.

The exclusion of people of color and other individuals who have been traditionally underrepresented has played out in lots of different ways in this country over time. For much of our country’s history people of color have not felt welcome downtown or in their commercial districts, were excluded from becoming business owners, and in some cases were only allowed to shop on certain days or times.

We like to think that those days are behind us; but if we look around today, our business owners, shoppers, boards and volunteers, and visitors are not always reflective of our communities.

This is where Main Street leaders again have the opportunity to forge new connections that help grow strong Main Streets, and offer economic opportunity and quality of life to everyone.
While building a truly equitable and inclusive Main Street takes a lot of collective effort and intention, there is important work going on in our network to support Main Streets that points to a path forward. Danville, Virginia is a terrific local example of a community that is doing intentional work to support equity and community wealth building by identifying people of color who have an interest in opening a business and then providing a pathway to funding that can help to make it happen. The work in Thomasville, Georgia, is yet another example. Through community-led initiatives, Thomasville successfully preserved the culture, fabric, and stories of The Bottom, a neighborhood that was once at the heart of the African American community. Learn more this remarkable community preservation effort here.

Every single Main Streeter is a leader, and every single person has the opportunity to take steps to make their Main Street as welcoming and as inclusive as possible.

Efforts to build diversity, equity, and inclusion in your organizations or communities will look very different depending on your local context and background, but the first step is recognizing the role you can play and starting the conversation.

Whatever You’re Doing on Housing, Double It

This country faces the interrelated crises of housing affordability and supply – our recent survey results show that availability of housing downtown for Main Street Directors is a major issue, with 87 percent reporting that they were concerned about the state of housing in their Main Street districts.
At the same time, the overall environment for Main Street businesses has become more challenging in recent years; among those challenges is the difficulty of getting people back inside bricks and mortar establishments when shopping behaviors were radically transformed during the pandemic. This is where the housing crises presents robust opportunity for Main Streets.

Working to direct housing downtown helps to alleviate the supply issue, and it helps to concentrate people (e.g. create density) in your core to support businesses. Multiple analyses by Donovan Rypkema and PlaceEconomics indicate that for each dollar spent on rent or other housing costs in a downtown housing unit, new downtown residents will contribute between $1.36 and $1.69 to the downtown economy in other ways. In other words, a couple spending $1,000 per month to live downtown will likely contribute about $1,500 per month to the downtown in non-housing related spending.

Main Street leaders have a real opportunity to lead on this issue – consider taking the following steps:

· Begin building a sense of the housing market and identify gaps.
· Engage with your program’s board to learn more about their interest in making housing a local Main Street priority.
· Conduct outreach and data gathering about the housing concerns and wishes of community members.
· Get better acquainted with city planning staff, housing advocates and developers, and code officials.
· Better your understanding of the capacity of your current downtown infrastructure, especially water and sewer capacity.
· Identify vacant or built spaces that could be utilized as downtown housing.

With thanks to the 1772 Foundation, you can see our terrific report on the state of housing in Main Street communities here. More resources will be added online in the coming weeks, including a new report for Main Street managers interested in getting started in prioritizing housing development, and a web-based resource for accessing housing data and learning about potential responses to common housing challenges.

Embrace Electric

Legislation passed by Congress over the last year provided an unprecedented amount of funding to support electric vehicles, specifically ensuring that there is a nationwide network of charging stations that will allow people to drive cross country and enable everyone (urban or rural) to convert to electric vehicle ownership.
This is especially big news for rural communities, as a number of federal Department of Transportation programs are designed to help support the development of charging stations specifically in small towns. There are great examples within the Main Street Network of early adaptors welcoming charging stations to their downtown. For example, Defuniak Springs, Florida is home to these handsome Tesla charging stations in the heart of their downtown. This is a huge win for Defuniak and other places. Charging takes a bit of time – typically a minimum of 30 minutes – in which that electric car owner is likely to pop across the street for a cup of coffee, visit a gallery…and perhaps decide to come back to stay awhile, which adds up to significant economic impact for local small businesses.

I can’t emphasize this enough; if I was leading a small-town Main Street, I would be focusing on collaborating with state and local partners to secure a charging station downtown – this is a boon to local Main Streets, and a boon to local economies. My fear is that these stations might easily end up at freeway exits next to McDonalds, the Hampton Inn, and the BP Station. That would be a massive, wasted opportunity.

Check out this great resource “Charging Forward” from the Department of Transportation, join a UDSA webinar on July 7, and stay tuned to MSA communication channels for more resources in future.

Build your Advocacy Muscle

Main Street isn’t a red state issue. It’s not a blue state issue. Everyone has a stake in the health of their downtown and district. One of the most remarkable things I’ve seen in the last few years is the extent to which Republicans and Democrats see eye-to-eye on the need to support local economies, support small businesses, and support our Main Streets in particular. There are precious few other issues about which we can say the same.

Where elected officials know about their local Main Street programs, they are very often ardent champions of our work. The problem is, not enough of our federal elected leaders understand the work we do. And so, I end with this final request:

If you don’t yet have a relationship with your Senator and House Member, I urge you to reach out and invite those members of Congress to visit your Main Street this summer. Tell them what you do to support the local economy, what you do to support local business, and how you help create a better place to live, work and visit. Watch this recent webinar recording to learn about how to host a successful visit, review these tips, and ask them to support new legislation to build the capacity of business district programs through the Economic Development Administration.

Finally, reach out to Kelly Humrichouser, Main Street America’s Director of Government Relations, for help and support in making the connection with your elected officials. We are committed to collaborating with you to strengthen our movement and advocate for your work.


That’s it folks. I’ll be cheering you on.