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More About the Main Street Approach

The Main Street Approach To Downtown and Neighborhood Commercial District Revitalization

What happened to Main Street?
Main Street's problems stem from profound changes in the retailing industry over the past five decades changes that are the result of transportation and land use patterns as well as an unprecedented boom in commercial overbuilding. Dramatic suburban commercial growth and the development of major discount retailers on the periphery of communities have drawn customers and investors away from the central business district. A vast oversupply of retail space has undermined Main Street's traditional role as a retail center. Tremendous stocks of high-quality historic commercial buildings need financing to make them safer in earthquakes. Local permit processes need revamping to encourage entrepreneurial investment in building rehabilitations and business ventures. Outmoded business practices of long-term merchants and inexperience of new small business owners have constrained traditional business districts from reaching their full market potential.

Why is Main Street important?
The California Economic Strategy Panel found that quality of life was one of the key public policy issues that profoundly affect the capacity and prospects of California's businesses to prosper and the economy to grow. A thriving downtown or neighborhood commercial district is a paramount component of each community's quality of life. It provides a central gathering place for entertainment, civic life and commerce. It supplies a focal point for community identity and pride. It offers a sense of place, connectivity, integration and cohesion for residents. It attracts visitors and projects a healthy community image upon which industrial investors rely in part to make their location decisions. It provides small business ownership opportunities, jobs, retail sales and property tax revenues.

What is the Main Street Approach to Revitalization?
The Main Street Approach to downtown and neighborhood commercial district revitalization was developed by the National Main Street Center, a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The approach is based on four points and relies on eight principles to produce fundamental change in traditional commercial business districts.

The Eight Guiding Principles

#1 The Main Street Approach is a comprehensive approach to revitalization.
Unlike many revitalization strategies that have been tried in the past, the Main Street Approach is comprehensive, addressing all areas in which action must take place. In the past, districts have covered entire blocks of building facades with aluminum slipcovers or demolished portions of the district in hopes of attracting a developer to build something new. Design improvements alone will not bring about meaningful change; effective marketing, a strong organizational base and solid economic development strategies are all necessary to reverse the cycle of decay and sustain preservation activity.

#2 The Main Street Approach relies on quality.
A district's architecture tells the history of a community and reflects the pride past generations felt. These buildings embody quality in construction, craft and style that cannot be replicated today. The quality inherent in its commercial architecture and in the services offered by its businesses make a district unique in the marketplace and give it many marketing advantages. The projects undertaken by the local Main Street program should reflect this high level of quality to reinforce the district's special characteristics.

#3 A public-private partnership is needed to make meaningful, long-term revitalization possible.
To make a revitalization program successful, both public and private entities must be involved, as neither can bring about change alone. Each sector has unique skills and particular areas in which it works most effectively; combining the talents of both groups brings together all the skills necessary for revitalization to occur in a unified program.

#4 The Main Street Approach involves changing attitudes.
The economic changes experienced by traditional commercial districts in recent decades have made shoppers and investors skeptical about the district's ability to regain economic viability. Because of its physical decay, many people have forgotten how important a community's historic commercial buildings are to shaping its identity and explaining its unique history. Changing people's attitudes--demonstrating that positive change is taking place--is central to a successful revitalization program.

#5 The Main Street Approach focuses on existing assets.
Each community is unique and has special characteristics that set it apart from all others. By creating a strong revitalization effort based on the district's unique heritage, a local Main Street program creates an organizational structure that builds on its own specific opportunities. In this way, the Main Street program is adaptable.

#6 Main Street is a self-help program.
Without the will to succeed and the desire to work hard to create change, no revitalization program will flourish. Grant programs can help fund pieces of the workplan and consultants can provide guidance, but without local initiative, the Main Street Approach will not work.

#7 The Main Street Approach is incremental in nature.
Traditional commercial districts did not lose their economic strength overnight; it happened over years, with small declines leading to a severe downward spiral. Improvement must be gradual as well. Cataclysmic changes, like those brought about by urban renewal's large-scale land clearance programs, have rarely created long-term economic growth. The Main Street Approach relies on a series of small improvements that begin to change public attitudes about the district, making the area's investment climate more favorable. Gradually, the small changes build to larger ones as the local revitalization organization gains strength and becomes efficient in mobilizing resources for revival.

#8 The Main Street Approach is implementation oriented.
By identifying and prioritizing the major issues that a district must confront, revitalization organizations can develop workplans that break down the large issues into smaller tasks. Then, by developing a strong network of volunteer support, Main Street programs can build organizational structures capable of achieving the quantifiable tasks mapped out in the workplans.