The Keys to the Economic Vitality of Main Streets

By August 24, 2017Blog

Nicholas Samuel

Project Manager/Director of Research


Downtowns and Main Street districts, both of which could be considered types of central business districts, are typically the home to the greatest concentration of businesses for an urban area. While some are neither centrally located or are a central part of an urban area’s primary businesses, most, if not all, are central to the history and social life of their community. This idea is considerably more appreciated today than was in the past few decades and has been brought about due to the determined work of local business and advocacy groups following and sharing best practices across the nation.

One of the key programs undertaken by downtowns and Main Streets throughout the US has been the “Main Street Approach.” The National Main Street Center, established by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, serves as a network for Main Street Programs across the nation and a source of insight and best practices for the Main Street Approach. The Main Street Approach is centered on “The Four Points,” which are Design, Organization, Promotion, and Economic Vitality. According to the Main Street Approach, economic vitality “focuses on capital, incentives, and other economic and financial tools to assist new and existing businesses, catalyze property development, and create a supportive environment for the scores of entrepreneurs and innovators that drive local economies.” (The Main Street Approach, 2016). Thus, a successful downtown economy relies on the same activities that economic developers undertake for the broader community: business attraction, retention, and expansion initiatives, offering incentives to increase competiveness, and leveraging underutilized assets.

To ensure the economic success of downtowns and Main Streets, economic developers first must understand what the goals of the community are for the district. Community engagement is central to the Main Street Approach as it is to planning efforts generally. For a downtown economy, it is important for the public, including business owners and residents/consumers, to express what they feel are the district’s greatest assets and what specific items are necessary to help businesses maintain success.

This community vision should be combined with detailed market research and a cataloging of Main Street’s assets. For most downtown and Main Streets, the district’s greatest assets are typically its buildings and streetscapes. Unlike many other commercial districts, downtowns can offer a wealth of historically significant or architecturally appealing real estate for businesses and residents. This is why many successful downtown revitalization efforts start as grassroots efforts to preserve or rehab historic buildings.

Finding the commercial niche for downtowns and Main Streets, however, is also particularly important. Backed up by an understanding of the offerings of retail districts in the surrounding urban area and the spending habits of nearby consumers, business attraction and incentive policies should also be focused on targeted niches that are strong local clusters or help to offset local gaps in retail.

Finally, the density of the built environment in downtowns and Main Streets is also an asset in the attraction of business incubators and co-working spaces. Incubators and co-working spaces provide the district with additional foot-traffic, and if they bring in enough users may help to support local retailers of everyday goods and services. Incubators can also help to grow potential small businesses that may occupy vacant or underutilized spaces throughout downtown.

Thus, the keys to growing a downtown or Main Street economy are not wholly different than that of the larger urban area they are contained within. Economic developers must start from community consensus and find a commercial niche for their district that can help them achieve that shared vision. They must put into action business attraction, retention, and expansion practices that help them develop those niches and preserve downtown buildings. Finally, they need to find ways to take underutilized portions or facts about the Main Street environment (such as the density of the buildings) and turn them into assets to help sustain the base of consumers, businesses, or talent that can help keep the district an attractive and vibrant place for years to come.

If you’re interested in reading more about strategic plans that involved downtown development, take a look at AE’s work in Lincoln, NE, Cedar Rapids, IA, and Butte, MO


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