Written by Erica Stewart, Public Affairs Manager
Ocean Springs, Miss. (l.) and Rochester, Mich. (r.) celebrate their Main Streets.
We all know a great Main Street when we see it. Maybe it offers abundant antique shops and a second-hand bookstore or two. Perhaps it is awash in art galleries and trendy restaurants, or overflowing with edgy coffee shops and funky clothing stores. In fact, it might offer all of these things -- plus shady trees, easily navigable streets, jazzy festivals, and eclectic historic storefronts.
But what isn’t as evident beyond those inviting streetscapes is the Main Street organization that in many cases made it possible. Neither the casual tourist nor the regular shopper probably knows much about the work of the Main Street organization’s staff and loyal volunteers, its board of directors, and its coordinating program at the city, county or state level.
Main Street programs find ways to keep existing business owners happy and solvent, court new businesses to fill nagging vacancies, put a finger on the community’s pulse, help residents and visitors discover what the district offers, envision what the district can become, and build the partnerships to take it there.
More hidden still is the role the National Trust’s Main Street Center and its Four-Point Approach play in providing them the time-tested framework for how to keep traditional Main Streets alive (sometimes reviving them from death’s door), dynamic, and sustainable while uplifting their heritage, natural assets, and sense of place.
Anwar Saleem, Executive Director of H Street Main Street, Inc., put it this way: “I believe some [people] have really underestimated what I have learned from the National Trust.”
The cumulative impact of this approach is profound. Since 1980, 236,201 buildings have been rehabilitated, $55.7 billion in public and private investment has been attracted, and 473,439 net new jobs have been created in approximately 2,000 communities.
Every year, the National Main Street Center lifts the veil on those organizations following the Main Street approach by carefully selecting recipients of its Great American Main Street Awards (GAMSA). The award carries with it the stamp of approval from a discerning jury of downtown revitalization professionals who subject each candidate to a rigorous review -- prompting some in the field, including the Main Street executive director of one of this year’s winning programs, to compare winning a GAMSA award to winning an Oscar or a Grammy (!).
So without further ado, the envelope please:
H Street Festival, Washington, D.C.
Fans of city living will fall in love with H Street -- its lively arts scene, thriving nightlife, funky eateries, and strong ties to its African-American heritage. But the living wasn’t always so sweet in this neighborhood that sits just a few blocks from the Capitol. After enjoying a reputation as a welcoming haven during segregation, the riots following Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination literally tore H Street apart, leaving it barren and burned and riddled by crime and vacancies for decades.
H Street Main Street’s formation in 2002 proved to be the catalyst that turned growing citizen action into a comprehensive revitalization effort that has transformed the face of this community without losing its soul. The rehabilitation of the historic Atlas Theatre into a performing arts center was a major spark, but the fire has been stoked with tireless support to business owners, outreach to developers, and buzz-worthy events like its annual H Street Festival. Thanks to the inclusive leadership of H Street Main Street, the strong support of the community and a significant investment of public and private capital, in ten short years’ time, H Street is again a must-visit D.C. destination.
Mary C. O'Keefe Cultural Center in Ocean Springs
There is perhaps no better example of a community that, when life handed it lemons, it made lemonade -- twice. This once sleepy Gulf Coast beach town was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina -- and after heroically building its commercial district back up, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill struck, keeping tourists away and devastating the local economy.
But under the guidance of Ocean Springs Main Street and its close allies, the Chamber of Commerce and the Tourism Bureau, Ocean Springs is again sitting pretty. Together, their hard work and vision has helped line the town’s leafy streets with galleries and studios of all kinds, public art displays, and an array of restaurants that delight locals and visitors alike. They even rescued a historic high school from the wrecking ball and facilitated its conversion into a community arts center so beloved that folks can hardly imagine life before it. No longer just an out-of-the-way beach town, Ocean Springs is now squarely on the map as a quirky arts mecca that is worth traveling to -- or calling home.
The annual Big, Bright Light Show in Rochester, Mich.
Being a suburb -- and a suburb of Detroit at that -- might seem a liability to this Main Street district. But the top-notch team at the Rochester Downtown Development Authority (DDA) has put an end to that notion. Rochester, like many towns, experienced the boom of a mill town and its eventual bust, losing its economic base and its Main Street’s vitality along with it.
The DDA has changed all that, by giving Rochester an image makeover as a suburb that stands out from the crowd. This work involved using innovative ways to draw folks back downtown to enjoy a bike ride or a picnic by the newly revitalized riverfront, and into the many small businesses that give Rochester its strong hometown pride. One example: The annual Big, Bright Light Show -- which drapes the district in 1.5 million holiday lights -- draws 1 million people to the downtown, and helps shine a light on what makes Rochester a special place to live, work, and shop.