I had a wonderful experience at the National Trust Main Street Conference, and was honored to attend a main street manager session on the “vision of the future of main street.” I wanted to share my thoughts online (and those that I shared at the session) in light of some of the challenges and opportunities facing Main Street over the next thirty-five years.
- Main Street is leadership in economic development. There was much discussion in my session about “making the case for Main Street as economic development.” This included using economic development language and terminology like “dollars per job,” “leverage,” and “spillover.” This is important to think about, but we have to remember that the true power of main street is “do it today” economic development. Main Street succeeds where other economic development fails. The tools main street uses are straight-forward, direct, and approachable enough for small businesses to use today. My organization, the Tacony Community Development Corporation did a retail promotion along with a clean-up day that had an implementation window of about a week. These are not tax-credit programs with 50 page applications, projects that require an act of the general assembly, and technical programs impossible to administer with an office of one staff person. The four points and eight principles are excellent touchstones to guide a program forward.
- Main Street should remember its bedrock values. Main Street thrives as an entrepreneurial, risk-taking, and innovative program. It’s flexible and responds directly to community needs to build “places people love.” These are historic, dense, community-driven downtown and neighborhood commercial districts. In recent years we’ve responded to different hot-button issues like whether or not Main Street was green (pre-2009) or how many jobs were created (post-2009) in response to different political and macroeconomic trends of the day. I don’t know what could be the next issues: immigration, millennials, fuel costs? Who knows? But the bedrock values that ground Main Street are what should guide it going forward.
- That National Trust Main Street Center should provide tools that can assist local programs get the job done. Software, templates, and easy tools that can make a program more effective should be researched and provided to member organizations. Cloud-based software and programs like littlegreenlight could make it easier to raise money, renew members, and evaluate program impact. The preservation economic impact calculator is another one. These are just some examples. Other tools include making data easier to use and available to program managers. We heard a lot of talk about “BIG Data.” What could be provided to help organizations track and review sales, employment, and trade data using CLARITAS and ESRI?
- Main Street must think critically about the future of volunteers and volunteerism in America. Main Street was founded in the late 1970′s and early 1980′s a time when “good government” volunteerism thrived. Groups like the Lions, Junior League, and Jaycees flourished. Robert Putnam wrote about the decline of this social organizational structure in Bowling Alone. Research tells us that today’s volunteers aren’t looking for the types of indefinite commitments that defined organizations in the past. The committee system in Main Street is rooted in continuing commitment to an organization. But in an era with volunteers seeking “done-in-a-day” and “project based tasks” there may be a challenge to leverage volunteers with a committee-based system. Using volunteer job descriptions, “pop-up events,” work-study students, and task forces could offer a potential alternative. The growth of organizations like KABOOM! which build a playground in a day is reflective of this changing trend. Additionally some tasks which took a group of six people to do can now be done with just two or one with the growth of technology.
So who knows what Main Street will bring in the next 35 years. But I hope that the vision can be just as strong as its past. I was so honored to have the opportunity to share my ideas and vision for the future.