Written by Andrea L. Dono
Amidst a sea of state signs, pulsating music, and a vivacious crowd, the opening plenary at the National Main Streets Conference in Des Moines, Iowa, is like a cross between a political convention and a big party. It’s an energetic coming together of like-minded people whose creativity and love for their communities is palpable. It’s also an opportunity for the movement to celebrate the year’s successes.
With the recession still in the back of our minds, we delved into the bright spots that show the incredible tenacity that has been sustaining Main Streets throughout the US. The first bit of good news is the collective economic power of Main Street revitalization. Thirty-five percent of Main Street programs said the general health of their districts out-performed or was on par with the competition nearby.
Much of that can be attributed to the ability for Main Street districts to carve out a niche that sets them apart from the rest as well as creating a business-friendly culture. How many other places besides Main Streets can you scoop up a 1897 jail for $65,000 and turn it into a community food hub with a grist mill for artisan grain production. (For example: downtown Skowhegan, Maine, where jail cells also provide incubator space for creative entrepreneurs.)
While access to capital has hindered many small businesses expansions and adding new jobs, many communities still celebrated new start-ups – such as Molalla, Oregon, where 22 businesses opened in the district in the last year alone. Entrepreneurs are also becoming more clever about financing. Social networking paid off – literally – for Lacy Simons, who raised $5000 online in two months so she could buy a bookstore in downtown Rockland, Maine.
Main Street programs are also opening doors. Cambridge, Md., hosted two temporary pop-up shops in vacant storefronts downtown, giving two entrepreneurs a chance to test out their business plans before deciding on opening permanently on Main Street.
It’s been a tough year. Not everything has been rosy. Sponsorships are down. Budgets are tighter than ever Main Street programs reported the lowest private investment in five years. There’s been a dramatic shift in public to private investment – from 4:1 several years ago to almost 1:1 last year.
But we are optimistic for the coming year and don’t dwell on the hardships. We look at Charles City, Iowa, that recently became the smallest community in Iowa to reach $20 million in private investment – a milestone for a tiny town that can inspire us all. That sentiment will prevail during the next few days as we share success stories and ideas with each other to help each other achieve more milestones.
Andrea L. Dono is the program manager of research and training at the National Trust Main Street Center.