Sage Advice

June 29, 2021
Sage Advice

The Main Street movement has been going strong for more than 40 years. Before that, local chambers of commerce, betterment organizations and other groups were active in bolstering business activity and doing placemaking (even before placemaking was a word). Of course, challenges to the downtown district were less prevalent way back then - downtown was the “only game” in town.

We have learned a lot in 40 years, but as quickly as new challenges arise and existing ones change, it is necessary that new solutions be developed (or changed) just as quickly to address these downtown district challenges. Consider changes in shopping patterns, demographics, competition, big box retailers, malls, economic changes and public safety issues (pandemic) when developing solutions that address challenges downtown, which can require us to handle situations differently.

Over the years, I have met a lot of smart people, many of which work in the field of downtown revitalization or a somewhat similar profession. I asked a group of professionals the same question, “Today, based on your experiences working in downtowns across the country, what two things do community leaders absolutely have to do to have a positive or even transformational impact on their respective downtowns (regardless of community size)?”

Although, opinions varied based on what is most important to them, their advice is helpful; responses are “big picture” but can certainly be used by all community leaders.

Patrice Frey – President and CEO, Main Street America

  1. Embrace that real change is incremental – great downtowns and commercial districts don’t happen overnight. The most talented downtown leaders I know recognize that turning around a district takes years, not months.  They’re in this for the long haul, and they celebrate the little wins along the way. 
  2. They remember – and manage – according to the 20-60-20 rule. When working towards change, you should expect 20% of folks will be early, enthusiastic adapters and supporters, 60% will hop on the bandwagon when they see great things starting to happen. That final 20% likely will never embrace or support the change. The best downtown leaders I know recognize you’re never going to win over everyone - there are always going to be those reluctant property owners or uncooperative businesses. These leaders embrace the 80% and don’t let the 20% get them down!

Kennedy Smith – Senior Researcher, Institute for Local Self-Reliance | Advisor, CLUE Group (Washington, D.C.)

  1. Virtually every problem that downtown businesses and, consequently, downtown districts have suffered over the last 40 years has been the result of corporate giants using their market power to tilt the playing field away from small business. First it was mall developers, then big box stores, then category killers and now large e-commerce companies. Community leaders should throw away their communities’ pre-pandemic economic development plans and replace them with new plans centered around local business ownership and entrepreneurship. Locally owned businesses build wealth that stays in the community, with ripple effects that benefit every single aspect of civic life. National chains and big corporations pump wealth out of the community making it harder every year for governments to provide the services and amenities their residents need. These new plans should help local leaders make different, and better, decisions about every aspect of economic development, from incentives and procurement policy to supply chains and zoning.
  2. Community leaders should invest the resources needed to support small businesses and cultivate new ones. Bring entrepreneurship training back into high schools and community colleges. Provide hands-on guidance to help small businesses master the new digital marketplace. Create local sources of capital to support small business growth. Convert vacant spaces into incubators and coworking spaces. Ensure high speed internet is readily available (and affordable) to support online commerce. Develop a local restaurant delivery service that can truly support restaurants and keep profits in the community. And community leaders should serve as role models for the future they envision for their cities. Small businesses are essential businesses, and it’s time for all of us to prove that fundamental American value through our own actions. 

Randy Wilson – President, Community Design Solutions (Columbia, SC)
(Keynote speaker at upcoming 2021 Iowa Downtown Conference)

  1. Communities with successful downtowns foster a culture of ‘yes.’ Even if the initial or logical answer is ‘no,’ or ‘its never been done,’ they are committed to pondering solutions on how to get to ‘yes.’ Moreover, they are rarely lone rangers in this pursuit. They typically surround themselves with talented individuals and value their opinions, welcome unique perspectives, and are not threatened by new ideas. In fact, an underlying trait of this team-based approach is that they rarely care who gets the credit as long as the job gets done. 
  2. They simply do the right thing. Former Charleston, SC mayor Joe Riley said, ‘the hard work is doing the due diligence to determine what is the right thing to do.’ Once they have done the hard work, deliberated as long as necessary, and are convinced of the best course of action to benefit the most people for the longest period of time, they proceed irrespective of the consequence, politically or otherwise. 

Lyn Falk – Behavior Specialist | Experience Curator | Registered Interior Designer | Speaker | Author | President, Retailworks, Inc. (Milwaukee, WI)

  1. Property Owners can be an impediment or a catalyst to getting buildings enhanced and downtowns revitalized. Getting the absentee, or obstinate, or simply-not-interested property owners on board with downtown plans can make or break a project. Understanding the reasons behind the non-compliance or non-involvement can often lead to a different conversation or timeline which can be helpful in the long run…. not an easy task but a critical one.
  2. Continuity/Consistency:  Having the “sticky factor” that permeates a community and gets everyone to want to join up or get on board is a magical thing. It can take time to determine that factor and then push it out, but once a tipping point is reached, stand back and watch things happen.

Michael Wagler – State Coordinator, Main Street Iowa (Des Moines, IA)

  1. Strong relationships between community revitalization organizations/leaders/staff and city elected officials and staff built on trust, communication and true partnership. 
  2. Clear strategic direction for the downtown district beyond the identification and completion of one or two projects, e.g., white elephant building rehab or streetscape project.

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