The State of Main Street

Posted on: March 3rd, 2009 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

Yesterday morning the downtown revitalization world was rocked with a dose of infectious enthusiasm and energy. Could you feel the energy emanating from Chicago?

Gregarious state delegations fill the annual opening plenary with enthusiasm and energy.

Gregarious state delegations fill the annual opening plenary with enthusiasm and energy. Photo: Linda Glisson

The 2009 National Main Streets Conference, “Becoming Main Street 2.0,” kicked off yesterday with a rousing Opening Plenary. The Palmer House Hilton’s glorious ballroom was filled with groups representing their states – clusters that are marked with delegation-style state signs. It began with Main Street Center’s Director Doug Loescher delivering some good news that despite tough economic challenges, historic commercial districts in America are holding on or even thriving. This was met with thunderous applause and much “wooting.” (Our conference is special in that when you get a bunch of Main Streeters together – people who are passionate about reviving the heart of their historic communities – it is hardly a somber or low-key event.)

Doug shared news from a survey taken by the Main Street Center that as many as 27% of Main Street districts  - communities with preservation-based economic development programs in place - are not reporting severe negative effects from the challenging national economy. In fact, in many communities tell us that business openings seem to be out-pacing closings 2 to 1.

And while the Institute for Local Self-Reliance reports 2008 holiday sales for independent businesses dropped an average of 5% from 2007, that’s nothing compared to what many national chains suffered: sales drops by as much as 25%. Even better news is coming out of Main Street communities that organized “Shop Local” campaigns: those participating businesses saw declines of just over two percent—a good testament to how coordinated strategies like Main Street can really make a difference.

Main Street is also at the center of several key cultural and economic trends right now. Our nation’s economic recession, our vast carbon footprint, and Wall Street collapse dominate our daily headlines. With its philosophy of investing in local assets, including rehabbing older and historic buildings, bolstering businesses and building public and private partnerships, Main Street is a living, working text book on economic and environmental sustainability.

David Brown, the Executive Vice President of the National Trust, drove the point home—that sustainability and historic preservation go hand in hand – with a sustainability success story that takes place in Dubuque, Iowa. He started with the sobering statistic that demolishing a 15,000-square foot building creates 1,200 tons of waste and rebuilding a new structure of that size releases as much carbon into our air as driving a car 840,000 miles. But we see a refreshing alternative in Dubuque’s plan to revitalize a 17-block warehouse district through rehabbing 28 mostly vacant structures. The project will create 1 million square feet of housing and commercial space while making maximizing energy efficiency and minimizing water waste. And by providing on-site job training for high school students to help rehab the buildings, the project is also building the skills and preservation ethic of local youth.

Clearly the dramatic reshaping of the business landscape represents big change. But the Main Street movement grew out of the urban renewal rubble of the 1970s and it is a time-tested approach that helps communities and economies adapt to new market realities. In the words of Terry Lynn Smith from Hammond, Louisiana:

“Tough economic times should be used as a lesson to all Americans. We are not lazy, we just get too comfortable…this should sharpen the stone, so to speak. Our Main Street program will learn from today’s economy. Rising up from what could be a disaster will be better and more enduring programs. I firmly believe we will get the job done.”

-- Andrea Dono

Andrea Dono is the associate editor for the National Trust Main Street Center. Stay tuned here and on their official blog as Andrea and her colleagues share posts live from the 2009 National Main Streets Conference, which is taking place this week in Chicago.

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National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

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