Written by Erica Stewart
With the news dominated this past week by possible federal government shutdowns, showdowns on the state house steps, and of course, crazy Charlie Sheen rants, it was very refreshing to encounter three uplifting stories from places that are surviving, even thriving, in times of recession. Despite differing geography, population, economy and attributes, each example offers strong testimony to the power of Main Street to make our historic downtowns vibrant places to live, work and play—whatever the economy.
The first is courtesy of NBC Nightly News Reporter Roger O’Neil who visited Thomasville, Georgia, home to a robust Main Street revitalization program, in search of the secret to keeping its downtown humming. Despite its small population of 20,000 and the effects of the nation’s slumping economy, downtown Thomasville is thriving. Recession? What recession? Only one restaurant out of 15 in downtown Thomasville has closed, and only one of its 40 businesses has shuttered. This news comes as no great surprise to folks familiar with the National Trust’s Main Street Four Point Approach, a comprehensive revitalization strategy that uses a community’s unique assets to drive its future. Check out the clip for the keys to Downtown Thomasville’s success.
The second story takes us to the heartland, where Main Street Iowa (MSI) has reached a staggering milestone. MSI, the statewide program that coordinates the application of the Main Street approach in participating communities, announced that its local programs have attracted more than $1 billion in private investment over MSI’s 25-year history! That’s about $79 private dollars for every public dollar. MSI also expects to surpass the two million mark in volunteer hours dedicated to local Main Street programs, representing $33 million in donated time. 2011 is shaping up to be quite a banner year, as Main Street Iowa will soon welcome legions of downtown revitalization professionals, planners, officials and enthusiasts to Des Moines for the annual National Main Streets Conference in May (if you think your community could use a million or two, better meet us in Des Moines).
The third story takes us to the hilly neighborhoods of Pittsburgh, where once-moribund neighborhood commercial districts are starting to come alive. Take Mt. Washington, for example, and its Shiloh Street—the undisputed heart of the neighborhood that was bled dry by suburban competition starting in the 1960s. Today, thanks to the slow and steady Main Street approach, signs of life abound: “once vacant stores that are now filled with people, young families strolling the blocks, and colorful murals that have replaced the graffiti.” Its interesting architecture and unique independent business brings people out on the streets, making them safer and livelier. Mt. Washington used to be plagued by commercial vacancies. Now it has only one, and that is temporarily being leased by a church. This rejuvenation is not unique to Mt. Washington. The city has 10 Main Street programs that are reclaiming their historic neighborhood business districts without losing their soul.
Erica Stewart is the outreach coordinator for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Communications and Marketing department.