Main Street America’s Main Street Now is an annual conference that gives attendees a chance to convene and learn about new and innovative, as well as tried and true, ways in which the Main Street Approach is used as a powerful economic development tool in helping to revitalize commercial districts of any size.
Here at Fourth Economy we use the Main Street Approach on numerous projects, understanding that these transformation strategies are the building blocks of preservation-focused economic development. While there is value in preserving the places and spaces that make up the core of our communities, it’s also important to be responsive to larger economic trends. Understanding what is happening on the national level has only been underscored by the ongoing pandemic, seeing all the ways in which our communities are connected and learning and growing from each other.
Here are four key takeaways from the conference
1. Business mix is shifting away from retail
Online shopping is here to stay, but it doesn’t have to be all bad news for Main Street. Main Streets have always had to pivot and so, to a large extent, despite the very real negative impacts of the pandemic on small businesses, the pandemic only accelerated the necessity to provide online and ecommerce options in order to stay competitive.
Following the 2020 surge in new business filings, 2021 in many ways created new opportunities for businesses. Access to capital and being able to capitalize on pent up consumer demand combined with an ability to be nimble in business planning and take products and services to market at a faster pace has given rise to more artisan and maker businesses.
“Traditional business planning is being supplanted by lean canvas, design thinking, and faster iterations of customer feedback – providing earlier insights for product-market fit.” Dale Ficktt, MBA - RVA Works & University of Richmond, Robins School of Business
Main Street Managers are reporting that there are fewer storefront retailers as
of March 2020, a somewhat disheartening trend, but one that is countered by a shifting business mix that responds to consumer demand. Both pent up demand, and an increased desire for more social experiences, are influencing increases in hospitality-based businesses, particularly, outside of more traditional restaurants, breweries and cideries. Makers and artisans (which breweries and cideries should not be excluded from) are increasing, and it is important for communities to set the table for these types of non-traditional businesses and consider their needs at both the brick and mortar, and well as zoning and use level so that they can support this new trend.
2. Regional policy has a massive affect on Main Street
Historic Downtowns in the metropolitan periphery are well-suited to respond to shifting trends related to where people work and live. Business mixes are changing in small and mid-sized downtowns to respond to the work-from-home lifestyle and knowledge-based business sectors.
According to a 2021 survey conducted by John Accordino & Sarin Adhikar, when counties encourage growth only on greenfield sites, Main Street Managers were seven times more likely to identify a decrease in storefront retailers in their historic downtowns. The general trend is that there is less storefront retail and service-based businesses (lawyers and other professional services) in counties that push growth away from Main Street and toward Greenfields.
Despite many real challenges for municipalities in the metropolitan periphery of Pittsburgh, here in our region, Allegheny County Economic Development has consistently enacted programs that are designed to attract growth to, not away from, these smaller municipalities. Programs such as Allegheny Together, that we are proud to administer here at Fourth Economy, help communities gain access to tools to attract this growth and prepare for future investment.
3. Main Street efforts have to be more inclusive
The Main Street Approach is centered around Transformation Strategies that articulate a focused and deliberate path to revitalizing or strengthening commercial districts. At its core this work needs to be informed by both a solid understanding of market data but also sustained and inclusive community engagement. Every program should be organized around Four Points: Economic Vitality, Design, Promotion, and Organization. Steering committees and working groups are essential, but these avenues can sometimes lack a diverse range of voices. Without truly broad community engagement it can be easy to make assumptions about what people want in their communities.
True community engagement takes time and resources, which are often scarce in this type of work. However, there is no shortcut to community engagement.
Beautification projects meant to attract visitors to the area and outside investment can turn into sources of displacement if the needs and desires of existing residents are not identified and incorporated into designs. The most vibrant places and spaces will attract both residents and visitors alike, allowing for social spaces that create healthier communities for all people.
4. Hug (or give a socially-distanced appropriate elbow bump) to your Main Street Manager next time you see them
Or, just ask them how they are doing. Oftentimes, Main Street professionals are not just asked to wear a lot of hats, but rather to staff a veritable haberdashery. Any small business advisor will tell you not to try to be all things to all people, but that is what is often asked of Main Street Managers. Business districts are not small businesses, and the work of managing them asks a lot of the people working behind the scenes.
“We are expected to be social media/communication managers, city code experts, advocates, and therapists to all of our communities and business owners, a 9-5 office worker with a never ending mailbox, event planner, urban planner - there is so much that goes into this type of work,” said one Main Street Manager at the conference.
This is tough work, and it is affirming to be reminded that there are people all over the U.S. in similar roles working hard to make an impact. In the end, being reminded you are not alone may be the most powerful takeaway of all.
John Accordino & Sarin Adhikari (2021): Balancing Act: Preserving Historic Fabric and Enhancing Economic Vitality in Towns in the Metropolitan Periphery, Planning Practice & Research, DOI: 10.1080/02697459.2021.1995970