Main Street Overview

Why is Downtown Important?

A community’s downtown is the face it presents to the world.  Its condition speaks volumes about the health of the local economy, whether or not local residents and property owners reinvest in themselves, and even the history of the town’s development.  A vibrant downtown—or the lack of one—affects the community’s ability to attract and retain residents, businesses and institutions, jobs, and investment that enable a town to endure and thrive. The evolution of shopping habits, transportation methods, and development patterns that has occurred since World War II has contributed to drastic changes in downtown economies. As a result, less available capital and less traffic has led to neglected buildings and vacant storefronts.

These circumstances are not unique to your town, nor to Minnesota. But, by stimulating local business development and incentivizing reinvestment, our downtown commercial districts are reemerging as the centers of community pride. We believe that historic commercial districts are important assets in any community. It is critical for everyone involved in downtown revitalization to understand the value of downtown. Here are some reasons why downtown is important:

  1. Downtown is a prominent employment center. Even small downtowns can employ hundreds of people. Downtown is often the largest employer in a community.
  2. Downtown is a major business center. It may even represent the largest concentration of businesses in your community. It can also be an incubator for new businesses, which could become the successes of tomorrow.
  3. Independently owned businesses downtown support local families who support other local businesses, local schools and so on. Independent businesses keep profits in town.
  4. Downtown reflects how your community sees itself—a critical factor in business retention and recruitment efforts. Industry examines many elements when looking at your community as a possible location, including quality of life. Included in quality of life is interest in downtown — is it healthy and viable, or does it represent local disinterest and failure?
  5. Downtown is a significant portion of the community’s tax base. If downtown declines, property values will decrease, shifting the tax burden to other parts of your community.
  6. Downtown is an indispensable shopping and service center. Though it may no longer be your community’s most important shopping center, it still offers unique retail and service opportunities. Also, attorneys, physicians, accountants, insurance offices, and financial institutions are often located downtown.
  7. Downtown is the historic core of your community. Many of the buildings are historically significant and highlight your community’s heritage.
  8. Downtown represents a huge amount of public and private investment. Imagine the cost it would take to recreate all the public infrastructure and buildings already existing in your central business district. Think of the waste of past dollars spent if downtown is neglected.
  9. Downtown is often a major tourist draw. When people travel, they want to see unique places and local treasures. There isn’t a downtown like yours in the world!
  10. Downtown is usually a government center. Your city hall, county courthouse, and post office are likely located downtown. This “one stop” shopping for government services is a notable feature of downtowns across the country.
  11. And, perhaps most important, downtown provides a sense of community and place. Carol Lifkind, author of Main Street: The Face of Urban America, writes that Main Street is “uniquely American, a powerful symbol of shared experiences, of common memory, of the challenge, and the struggle of building a civilization… Main Street [is] always familiar, always recognizable as the heart and soul of the village, town or city.”

(Adapted from an article by Alicia Goehring, Wisconsin Main Street Program, Wisconsin Department of Development)

A History of Main Street®

In 1977, the National Trust for Historic Preservation launched the Main Street Program as a three-year pilot aimed at preserving deteriorating downtown buildings in three Midwestern communities.  The success of the initial pilot led to the formation of the National Trust Main Street Center (NTMSC) in 1980. Since then, NTMSC has developed a national network covering more than 2,200 communities in 45 states. To date, the Main Street movement has led to $49 billion of investment in historic downtowns and commercial districts and helped generate more than 415,000 jobs and 94,000 new businesses nationwide.

The first Minnesota Main Street program was founded in 1981 and remained active until losing its funding in 1995. A small, independent non-profit organization called Hometown Minnesota continued to promote the Main Street Approach, providing training and technical support to Minnesota communities wishing to carry on their former Main Street activities. Hometown Minnesota’s capacities were limited by its lack of funding, however, and member communities were forced to manage their downtown revitalization programs independently, without access to the support networks available to official Main Street programs in other states.

In 2007, a number of Minnesota communities rallied to reinstate the Main Street program, and in 2010, Minnesota Main Street (MMS) was reborn as a program of the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota. The new Minnesota Main Street Program once again provides participating local Main Street programs with the training, tools, information, and networking they need to be successful in their downtown revitalization efforts using the Main Street Approach. Minnesota Main Street is financed in part by the State of Minnesota’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the Minnesota Historical Society.

The Main Street Four Point Approach®

NTMSC and Minnesota Main Street promote a comprehensive approach to downtown revitalization based on four key points. All Minnesota Main Street member programs are required to incorporate these four principles in their program mission:

Organization involves building a strong local Main Street network that includes local residents, business and property owners, bankers, public officials, chambers of commerce, and other local economic development organizations. Everyone must pool their resources and expertise and work together to renew downtown. Strong organization provides the unity and stability to build and maintain a long-term revitalization effort.

Promotion raises awareness and creates excitement downtown. Street festivals, parades, retail events, and image development campaigns are some of the ways Main Street communities promote themselves to attract visitors and encourage customer traffic. Promotion involves marketing an appealing image both inside and outside the immediate community.

Design addresses the physical environment of a Main Street district. Creative reuse of space, renovation and rehabilitation of historic buildings, street and alley clean-up, landscaping, lighting and other planning and beautification projects all improve the physical image of the Main Street district as a quality place to shop, work, walk, invest, and live. Design improvements also lead to the reinvestment of public and private dollars in the district.

Economic Restructuring involves analyzing current market forces to develop long-term economic solutions. Recruiting new businesses, converting vacant and underused space for new purposes, and boosting the competitiveness of the Main Street district’s traditional merchants are just a few examples of economic restructuring activities.

Some programs, especially those in urban communities, have adopted an unofficial fifth point:

Public Safety means reducing crime and the perception of crime to create a safe, welcoming environment for residents and visitors alike.

The Eight Guiding Principles

Communities implementing the Main Street Four-Point Approach base their efforts on eight core principles that guide the entire revitalization effort. The most successful Main Street programs emphasize the following:

  1. Comprehensive approach: One project alone cannot revitalize a neighborhood or community. A broad, ongoing series of related initiatives is vital for building community support and creating lasting progress.
  2. Incremental progress: Small projects make a big difference. Especially in the early stages of a program, small but visible successes give program leaders and staff the confidence and skills to tackle bigger, more complex projects. They also show the rest of the community that the program is making steady progress.
  3. Self-help: Minnesota Main Street provides local programs with direction and technical assistance, but the key to long-term success lies in local leadership. The ability to self-help strengthens the organization, fosters community involvement and demonstrates commitment to the revitalization effort.
  4. Public/Private Partnership: Every local Main Street program needs the support and expertise of both the public and private sectors. For an effective partnership, each must recognize the strengths and weaknesses of the other.
  5. Use of Existing Assets: Unique offerings and local assets are at the foundation of any successful Main Street initiative. Successful Main Street programs identify the strengths and unique points of their community and find creative ways to capitalize on them.
  6. Quality: From storefront design to promotional campaigns to special events, a good main Street program must always aim for quality results and take pride in its accomplishments. Even the most well-meaning of projects can be undermined by poor execution.
  7. Change: To transform and revitalize a Main Street district, changing community attitudes and habits is essential—a program without the full support of its community is not going to go anywhere fast. A carefully-planned Main Street program helps shift public perceptions and practices to support and sustain the revitalization process.
  8. Implementation: A successful Main Street program doesn’t spend all its time twiddling its thumbs and talking in circles. A good, action-oriented program identifies its priorities, knows its abilities but also understands its limits, and has a strong plan to accomplish its goals. The program takes pride in getting things done, even if they seem like small victories at first.

Accreditation Criteria

The NTMSC accreditation process evaluates and provides national recognition to established Main Street district revitalization programs based on ten basic performance criteria. The following points should act as a roadmap for your program and provide targets for better, more effective performance:

  1. Widespread support: The program enjoys broad-based community support for the Main Street district revitalization process including strong support from both the public and private sectors.
  2. Vision and mission statements: The program provides vision and mission statements that address current local conditions and the Main Street program’s organization goals.
  3. Comprehensive work plan: The program follows a comprehensive work plan that outlines measurable program objectives, specific activities for each of the four core Main Street principles, timelines, budgets and personnel responsibilities. The work plan is formally reviewed and updated annually.
  4. Historic preservation: The program demonstrates a commitment to historic preservation as a key to social and economic revitalization in the community. The program builds public awareness of local historic buildings, and implements a plan to effectively preserve and manage these assets, including through restoration, renovation and reuse. The program also encourages good urban design, development and land-use policies.
  5. Active board of directors and committees: The program has an active governing board and well-managed committees dedicated to each of the four Main Street principles. Both the board and the committees have regular meetings to address work plans and other important issues within the program.
  6. Budget: The program maintains an adequate and responsible operating budget specifically dedicated to revitalizing the Main Street district. The budget allows for staff salary and benefits, training and other development-related expenses, as well as the program’s primary goals.
  7. Paid, professional staff: The program employs paid staff, including a full-time, trained program manager to oversee and coordinate all program activities. The program has implemented staff management policies and provides written job descriptions for each position.
  8. Training for staff and volunteers: The program provides ongoing training for staff and volunteers, and takes advantage of training provided through Minnesota Main Street and NTMSC.
  9. Reports key statistics: The program submits timely and thorough reports on its progress as required by Minnesota Main Street and NTMSC.
  10. (And 11.) Membership: The program is a current member of Minnesota Main Street and the National Main Street Network.

Designated Minnesota Main Street programs must meet all ten of these criteria in order to receive and maintain their status as an accredited national Main Street program.

The Main Street® Name

It takes dedication and hard work for a community to receive and maintain its designation as a Main Street community. With this designation comes the honor of permission to use the official “Main Street®” title, a registered trademark of NTMSC. Designated Main Street Programs are evaluated annually, and must meet the above performance standards to keep their Main Street title.

Please note that self-initiated and independent programs do not have the right to use “Main Street” or variations such as “Mainstreet” or “MainStreet” in their official organizational names without express written consent from NTMSC. These programs may, however, state that they use the Main Street Approach in their revitalization efforts.

If the National Trust determines that the downtown program is making a comprehensive effort to follow the Main Street Four Point Approach® and meets all staffing and organizational criteria required of official Main Street programs, the Trust may grant independent programs permission to use the Main Street name. NTMSC vigorously enforces this policy, and will take appropriate action against programs found to be infringing on the Main Street trademark.

For more information about Main Street criteria, use of the Main Street name, or Minnesota Main Street program levels, please contact the Minnesota Main Street Coordinator at (651) 293-9047.

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