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.

Historic Main Street in Brainerd

Laurel Street in Brainerd, MN, 1936. Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society.

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)

Downtown Historic Wilmar

Willmar, MN (Designated Main Street Community), 1917
Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

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