Main Street USA: Revitalizing the Heart of Small Towns

Woodbine, Iowa, was like a lot of small towns. It was small and getting smaller. The population fell by 150 people between 2000 and 2010 — a trivial loss for a large city but a 10 percent tumble for tiny Woodbine, population 1,459.

Merchants in the downtown business district were turning out the lights. Meanwhile, enrollment in the local school district was ebbing to the point where consolidation with another district — an unthinkable blow to the town’s identity — seemed inevitable.

“It’s the kind of thing that sneaks up on rural communities,” says Deb Sprecker of Woodbine. “It wasn’t anything overnight. It was kind of a creeping decline.”

Today, Woodbine is on the rebound. A total of 18 new businesses — including the town’s first year-round restaurant — have opened and school consolidation is off the table because enrollment is growing. “We’re definitely on the upswing,” Sprecker says.

Chalk up another success story for the Main Street movement. Initiated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) in 1977, the Main Street movement is all about helping communities help themselves by maximizing one of their greatest assets — their traditional downtowns and neighborhood commercial districts. Time and again, the history, culture and architecture found there have been powerful catalysts for economic development.

Woodbine joined the Main Street movement in 2008. Since that time, more than $9 million in public and private funding has been invested in the downtown area and 36 buildings have been renovated or newly built. “Woodbine wasn’t going to be a rural community that fell off the map,” says Michael Wagler, who coordinates Main Street Iowa for the Iowa Economic Development Authority. “They were going to do something about it.”

The survival of a place like Woodbine means plenty to the people who live there, but in the grand scheme, one small town’s fate is not very significant. Yet the survival of small towns as a whole is significant because they are the kind of places where development makes sense.

Small towns are typically compact and generally walkable. They have authentic neighborhoods, distinctive business districts and a strong sense of place. And they have the capacity to focus growth where services and infrastructure already exist. Put it all together and it spells smart growth.

The Main Street movement and smart growth go hand in hand. “The intersection of Main Street and smart growth has always been there,” says Valecia Crisafulli, acting director of the Main Street program for the NTHP. “Our focus on preserving historic commercial areas makes a town attractive and creates a competitive advantage that sprawl development cannot.”

The emphasis on preservation also leads to a more sustainable style of development. “The greenest building is the one that’s already built,” Crisafulli says.

The NTHP has helped more than 2,000 communities of various sizes from Maine to California revitalize slumping commercial areas through its signature Main Street Four-Point Approach. The four points — organization, promotion, design and economic restructuring — provide a structured framework for carrying out a preservation-based economic development strategy.

Communities that follow the strategy apply to a national network of coordinating programs like Main Street Iowa for designation as a Main Street community. Once designated, communities can count on the coordinating program in their state, city or region for advice and information about planning, executing and funding their revitalization vision.

Woodbine started the way every Main Street community starts — with merchants, property owners, historic preservationists, city government and other stakeholders coming together to establish an organization, raise funds, hire a Main Street director and create volunteer committees and a board of directors.

After reviewing the commercial district’s needs and opportunities, participants use the four-point approach to formulate a long-term plan — everything from design standards to new zoning to tax incentives to marketing campaigns — and keep the ball rolling in the future. In Woodbine, which was founded in 1866, the need and opportunity was centered in three-square blocks of historic buildings with a growing number of vacant storefronts. “They’re wonderful turn-of-the-century buildings, but they’re expensive to renovate and maintain,” Sprecker says. “We decided if we wanted to save some of them we needed to get going. So we did.”

Becoming a Main Street community — and hiring Sprecker to lead Woodbine Main Street Inc. — was the first step. In 2010, Main Street Iowa helped Woodbine win a Community Development Block Grant to support a Downtown Revitalization Facade Master Plan that faithfully restored the exteriors of 23 buildings and made them more energy efficient. The $500,000 grant paid for more than half of the $900,000 project and the city and property owners supplied the rest.

“The net result is that it has energized the downtown,” Sprecker says. “And we’re seeing young families that moved away coming back. They want their children to grow up in a small town where they can walk to school and ride their bikes to the park.”

One of the most exciting outcomes is the addition of 30 units of upper-story housing above downtown storefronts. Adding residential to the downtown mix is good for business and — because downtown is attracting older residents moving from elsewhere around the city — it’s building school enrollment by putting more family homes on the market. “That’s a neat dynamic that’s really working for us,” Sprecker says.

The Evolution of West Des Moines

The city of West Des Moines, Iowa, became a Main Street community in 1987. The city’s historic Valley Junction business district was mired in a downward spiral that began decades ago when two railroad yards — the city’s main employers — moved and the area degenerated into a red light district.

Although Valley Junction eventually became less bawdy, competition from a new mall stunted its recovery, perpetuating the area’s reputation as “somewhere you didn’t want to be after dark unless you were up to no good,” says Clyde Evans, director of Community and Economic Development for West Des Moines, a suburb of Des Moines with a population of 56,609.

Despite Valley Junction’s vacant storefronts, crumbling buildings and seedy bars, West Des Moines was not ready to give up on the district. “This city has very strong roots and a great deal of affection for the Valley Junction district,” Evans says.

The community formed the Historic Valley Junction Foundation to revitalize the district Main Street style. The district runs for five blocks along Fifth Street. Many of the one- and two-story buildings that line the street are 100 or more years old. The spark that ignited Valley Junction’s rebirth came when the city expanded a repaving project into an extreme streetscape makeover that added new sidewalks, lighting, trees and other improvements.

Although it didn’t happen overnight, Valley Junction evolved from a collection of antique shops, flea markets and part-time businesses into a place where “hip meets history” filled with more than 150 specialty shops, restaurants and services and the single largest collection of independent businesses in the region. Valley Junction hosts numerous special events from a farmer’s market to concerts to gallery nights — the promotion component of the Main Street Four-Point Approach that is critical to keeping a revitalized commercial district vibrant.

“People just like going there,” Evans says of Valley Junction. In the years to come, more people may live and work there, too, as the Historic Valley Junction Foundation strives to bring more housing and offices to the district. “We’re seeing tech businesses look at Valley Junction right now,” Evans says.

Bath Capitalizes on Its History

Few towns beat Bath, Maine, for keeping history alive. Located on the west bank of the Kennebec River with a long legacy of shipbuilding, the city was incorporated in 1781 and a handful of buildings from that era are still standing. The existing downtown, which was established in the 1830s, is home to many buildings that are 150 or more years old.

Bath, population 8,514, became an official Main Street community in 2001, but revitalization began in 1991 when local merchants formed the Bath Business Association (BBA) to address the problems bedeviling downtown. A number of years earlier, the community rejected a plan to convert downtown Bath into an open-air shopping mall. The good news was most of the historic architecture remained intact. The bad news was it did nothing to stem the defection of major retailers to outlying shopping centers and the decline of downtown.

Rather than butting heads with the shopping centers, the BBA focused on beautifying downtown, promoting its character and filling vacant storefronts with unique businesses that could only be found in Bath. When a Main Street coordinating program sprouted in Maine, the BBA morphed into Main Street Bath, broadening the base of stakeholders supporting the revitalization effort, says Jennifer Geiger, Main Street Bath director.

Once known as the City of Ships, Bath now goes by a new nickname — Maine’s Cool Little City — and downtown is the coolest place of all.

“People are always remarking about how much they like to go downtown because they run into somebody they know,” Geiger says.

When downtown rebounded, so did the residential neighborhoods around it. “People started buying homes and fixing them up,” Geiger says. “Bath became a more attractive place to live.”

Paducah’s Prospering Downtown

Paducah, Ky., population 25,024, sits at the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee rivers. Founded in 1827 by William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame, Paducah became a Main Street community in 1989 when a streetscape project helped keep the historic downtown alive after the loss of several large retailers to a shopping mall.

“Downtown matters. It says a lot about the health of your community,” says Lisa Thompson, executive director of the city’s Main Street organization, the Paducah Renaissance Alliance (PRA). “When a business looks at coming to Paducah, they don’t say, ‘Let me see your Wal-Mart.’ They say, ‘Let me see your downtown.’”

Lower Town is a neighborhood of classic Victorian and Greek Revival homes adjacent to downtown that had fallen into disrepair. In 2002, the neighborhood was drawn into the PRA’s orbit through the Artist Relocation Program. After the city acquired 80 properties via condemnation or foreclosure, it sold them to artists around the country for a token amount with the provision they rehab them into first-floor studios with second-floor living spaces. A local bank offered zero-down, low-interest loans for the full cost of upgrading the dilapidated properties. The city now has a critical mass of galleries, arts-related businesses and an arts school.

Next up for Paducah is a riverfront redevelopment project that just got underway. With the addition of this area, the PRA is now shepherding a 70-block swathe of the city toward a dynamic future as part of a comprehensive Renaissance Area Master Plan.

Paso Robles - A Vibrant Center

Paso Robles, Calif., is a city of 26,793 nestled in the coastal mountains of the central part of the state — wine country. Norma Moye, executive director of the Downtown Paso Robles Main Street Association, recalls what the downtown was like 25 years ago after suburban shopping centers sucked the life out of it. “It was so dead you could shoot a cannon down the street and not hit anything.”

Not anymore. Paso Robles, founded in 1886, steadily nursed its century-old downtown back to life as a vibrant shopping and entertainment destination after becoming a Main Street community in 1987. To quickly rally public support, revitalization began with two highly visible projects — improvements to a downtown city park and a Facade rehabilitation program that subsidized improvements to 12 buildings but led property owners to improve 43 others without assistance. When an economic downturn and the arrival of an outlying Wal-Mart later threatened to undo downtown’s progress, the Main Street program helped galvanize additional projects.

A new library/city hall complex was constructed next to the park, a Community Development Block Grant funded seismic retrofitting of vacant unreinforced buildings and a new movie theater was enticed to open by vacating a street and providing $360,000 in public improvements.

The lesson? “Revitalization doesn’t happen without some struggle,” Moye says, ‘but you don’t ever want to give up.”

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