National Main Street Conference

This is the second in a series of posts on our experience attending the National Main Street Conference in Detroit.

I had the pleasure of attending the 2014 National Main Street Conference recently, in Detroit, Michigan. Several Albertans were there with me, including four people representing two of our main street communities: the Town of Olds and the City of Camrose. The (U.S.) Main Street Program has been operating in the United States for over 35 years now. As Alberta continues to revitalizes our its Main Street program, we continue to learn from the American counterpart.

The Canadians after the opening plenary session. Each american state formed a delegation, so we formed one of our own.

The Canadians after the opening plenary session. Each american state formed a delegation, so we formed one of our own.

In the late 1970s, the (U.S.) National Trust for Historic Preservation was exploring ways to facilitate the preservation of historic downtowns. All over North America, businesses and residents had been leaving downtown and moving to new suburban neighbourhoods and consequently many historic places were neglected and being abandoned. The National Trust realized that solving the problem would not be as simple as restoring dilapidated buildings; restoring historic commercial areas meant bringing people back down town. It launched a three-year Main Street Project in 1977 to study ways to revitalise declining downtowns. The main street pilot project was so successful that it was made a permanent program in 1980 and was soon helping hundreds of communities throughout the United States revitalise their historic commercial areas.

A Main Street project works by pursuing four equally important activities: organizing business owners and residents around a common purpose; economic restructuring or strengthening the existing businesses while also diversifying the mixture of business types; designing a functional and pleasant streetscape that highlights the authentic historic places; and promotion, or rekindling a sense of pride in the downtown. Economic restructuring ensures that businesses are successful and the Main Street is able to pay its own way. Design ensures that Main Street has a functional and pleasant streetscape—built around authentic historic buildings—and creates an inviting place that people want to work, live and play in. Promotion ensures that the community (and visitors from away) know what the area has to offer and feel welcome. Organization ensures that business owners, residents and other stakeholders take shared responsibility for the success of their downtown.

The keynote by Donovan Rypkema presented a straightforward and compelling explanation of how the program works and why it works so well. (Mr. Rypkema is an internationally regarded specialist in the economics of historic preservation.) He argued that Main Street is the most effective, sustainable and “cheapest” economic development strategy he’s come across, for historic areas or otherwise. This is because the four pillars of a Main Street align with the four factors that set the value of real estate.

Mr. Rypkema compared the four pillars of Main Street (design, organization, economic restructuring and promotion) with the four forces of value: economic, physical, social, and political. Mr. Rypkema talked about how Main Street works because each of the four points is aimed at increasing a corresponding area of value. When an area restructures economically by ensuring a mixture of complementary businesses, it increases the number of visitors and therefore the profitability of each business and consequently the value of the real estate.

A Main Street Program adds to the physical value of property when it restores dilapidated historic places and otherwise upgrades the streetscape. It adds to the social value of property by improving how the community feels about the area, by increasing local pride in a historic area. Finally, it adds to the political value of property when the range of possible, profitable and acceptable uses increases. He calls it the most successful economic restructuring programs ever tried in the United States. (On a somewhat related note, Mr. Rypkema joked that Main Street was working on smart growth and new urbanism before these planning philosophies were proposed.)

The best part about the conference was the opportunity to learn from peers in the Main Street movement. There were excellent sessions around all the four points. I attended lots of sessions on using social media effectively (big surprise) and community organization. I highly suggest that anyone interested in these ideas look into the National Main Street Center. I look forward to perhaps attending next year’s in Atlanta, Georgia.

Written by: Michael Thome, Municipal Heritage Services Officer.

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