Emporia Main Street

2021 Main Street Forward Award Winner


Emporia Main Street in Emporia, Kansas, is one of six winners of the Main Street Forward Awards, which recognize communities that have shown exemplary recovery and resilience efforts amid the multiple crises of 2020. Selected by a national jury of economic development experts, Emporia Main Street (EMS) is being honored for its multi-pronged pandemic response, which included significant relief funding, small business support, and even a pen pal program for residents of local senior living facilities.

“EMS stepped up with an entrepreneurial spirit to meet the challenges of the pandemic on multiple fronts. It comes as no surprise that this veteran Main Street group has served as an example for many other communities in Kansas.”

- Patrice Frey, President and CEO, MSA

Situated about halfway between Topeka and Wichita, downtown Emporia is known for its historic architecture, antique stores, local boutiques, coffee shops, diverse restaurants, and a restored Spanish Colonial Revival-style theater. While EMS has supported the area through numerous challenges, the pandemic presented serious challenges to a district that depends on people to fill its shops and eateries. Yet that didn’t faze this 30-year-old nonprofit.

“We are often asked to work magic, find a way to put a round peg in a square hole, or complete a $100 project on a buck,” said EMS Executive Director Casey Woods. “When COVID-19 hit, we relied on our ability to roll with the punches as we adapted existing programs and created new initiatives to support local businesses and strengthen community spirit.”

One of the first initiatives was a partnership with the local hospital, Newman Regional Health, to rally community volunteers to make cloth masks for patients and health care workers. The Main Street office served as a home base for donations of supplies, funds, and completed masks. EMS also worked with local businesses to procure materials and deliver them to volunteer mask-makers. To date, the program has collected more than 12,000 masks.


Left: Downtown Emporia health workers in front of new public art. Right: Fundraiser for Greater Emporia Area Disaster Relief Fund thank you sign. Credit: Emporia Main Street

The mask drive also generated a substantial influx of monetary donations, which eventually led EMS to create the Greater Emporia Area Disaster Relief Fund, with partners: United Way of the Flint Hills, the Emporia Community Foundation, and local media outlet KVOE. The new fund has allocated nearly $200,000 so far to more than 100 businesses and nonprofits impacted by the pandemic. Emporia Main Street also teamed up with KVOE to produce and sell “Thank U” yard signs to raise money for the disaster relief fund and publicly thank essential workers.

To bolster the local economy during the pandemic, EMS put extra effort into promoting its existing gift certificate program, which sells vouchers to be redeemed at local shops. In 2020, EMS sold approximately $70,000 in gift certificates, many of which supported an initiative to benefit staffers at Newman Regional Health. Through that program, community members could purchase gift certificates for employees or donate money to buy items at local businesses, which were used to create gift baskets for hospital departments. To date, EMS has collected more than $7,000 through that initiative. EMS also offered the option to purchase Main Street gift certificates for local school district employees. Thanks to the community’s generosity, EMS was able to deliver more than 130 gift certificates to teachers, bus drivers, and support staff.

EMS also took action to support isolated older adults in the community—and stimulate the local economy at the same time. EMS shared the names and interests of residents in senior living facilities and asked community members to choose a penpal. Participants were also encouraged to send packages to their penpals with items purchased from local businesses. This initiative, among others, garnered attention from local and regional media, and the community’s economic revitalization efforts have even been covered by the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and the Kauffman Foundation.

“EMS addressed the health, economic, and even social needs of its community throughout the pandemic,” said Scott Sewell, Director of Kansas Main Street. “Their extensive relief efforts brought the community together and safeguarded Emporia’s economic vitality at the same time.”