Happy New Year everybody! I’m looking forward to another year of articles! To start it off, I’ve realized, through quite a few conversations over the last few weeks, that quite a few people don’t know exactly what Main Street (the organization) is or what it does. Since it has been the driving force behind revitalizing our downtown for thirty-three years, I thought perhaps that needs fixed. But for that, we need to go back about fifty years.
The 1973 Oil Crisis, collapse of the international Bretton Woods trade system, 1973-75 recession, end of the Vietnam War, post-war manufacturing drawdown, Steel Crisis, rising unemployment, rising inflation, growth of “hypermarkets” and big box stores like Walmart and Target, and 1979 Oil Shock… By 1980, the U.S. economy was in rough shape, and as always, small towns and local businesses were hit the hardest while national corporations simply absorbed their losses.
Faced with failing downtowns nationwide and the possibility of losing hundreds of thousands of mom and pop stores in thousands of towns in all fifty states, a national one-size-fits-all policy seemed impossible. Yet, the National Trust for Historic Preservation hit upon a revolutionary approach that accomplished just that. A National Main Street Center would lead the charge, supported by a coordinating program in each state (Main Street West Virginia) and hundreds of local city programs (Main Street Point Pleasant) … And that, right there, is the beauty of what became the Main Street Approach.
Unlike a government agency, which typically operates from the top down, Main Street America runs from the bottom up. No orders come down from on high, and no representatives from the national office in Washington, D.C. tell the local programs how things should or shouldn’t run. Instead, the National Main Street Center identified the four basic pillars of saving a city’s downtown and let each city tailor that approach to their own local needs, standing by to help with any resources the local program may need along the way. By setting it up like this, the local community controls their own fate and sets their own destiny.
The first pillar, the core of any movement, is organization. For the Main Street Approach to work, it needs the support of the entire community. Local and state government, downtown and regional businesses, clubs and organizations all play a part. This is true of any community, whether it be Los Angeles with its 4,000,000 people, or Point Pleasant with 4,000.
The second pillar, without which the third is out of the question, is design. Every city is unique, and rightly so. Take Point Pleasant and Gallipolis. Both are river towns less than a mile apart, but two towns couldn’t be more different. Two rivers and one, English and French, a Main Street and a City Square, Battle Monument and Bandstand, Mothman and Bob Evans, the list goes on. What may be a good design plan for Gallipolis simply wouldn’t work for Point Pleasant, but by embracing and improving a design suited to their unique assets, the Main Street Approach fosters civic pride and attracts investment.
The third pillar, and the goal of every Main Street program, is economic vitality. For some cities, this may mean a downtown economy focused on local necessities (e.g. groceries, hardware stores, and pharmacies). Others might be centered based around a local college or tech campus (e.g. bars and bookstores). Perhaps they choose sports and recreation (e.g. repair shops, outfitters, and accommodations), or maybe they focus on tourism (e.g. parks and museums, gift stores, dining, and lodging). Or, who says they can’t have a little bit of everything? No matter the choice, the Main Street Approach leverages financial capital, incentives, and other tools to drive private development, support existing businesses, and create new ones.
That choice, whether to focus on local necessities or tourism or something else, is usually driven by the city’s unique features. For instance, Fayetteville, in the New River Gorge, obviously chose recreation. Huntington, with Marshall University, became a college town. For Point Pleasant, with its historic downtown, state park, and local cryptid, tourism makes the most sense. Only with design and economic vitality working together can a city begin to reach its full potential.
The fourth and final pillar, the one that helps make it all permanent, is promotion. This is when it all comes together, when a city has something to be proud of and display. This is convincing locals to stay and tourists to visit, and perhaps even stay, through every means of advertising and publicity possible and by tapping into Main Street America’s nationwide network of communities and partners.
Taken together, organization, design, economic vitality, and promotion… Designed to address the crash of the 1970s, invaluable in rebuilding after the 2008 Great Recession, and perfectly suited to recovering from the current pandemic and economic downturn, the Main Street Approach is flexible enough to meet any challenge and strong enough to carry out any plan.
Next week, I’ll cover the Main Street Approach’s impact in our own community.
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.