The workshop focused on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Main Street Program, and was the first in a series of six workshops to be held across Vermont over the next 10 months.
Leanne Tingay, state coordinator for the Vermont Downtown Program, who has helped to revitalize towns for 19 years, presented the Main Street Program’s four points of focus: organize, promote, design, and leverage. Tingay also gave a brief history of how Main Street has disappeared, and how it can come back.
Tingay explained that after World War II the GI Bill’s housing provisions created suburbs, a new way to live on the outskirts and farther away from the hearts of communities. As new zoning was created, the space between where people worked and lived became larger, creating sprawl and the emergence of malls and big box stores. But Tingay says that downtowns can not only learn from malls, they can co-exist.
“One reason malls are as attractive as they are is because of clustering,” said Tingay. “You have all the things you need clustered together. You need that, and retail needs that.”
Tingay says the goal for a Main Street is to be economically successful while providing everything a person may need within two blocks, the same distance from your car to the mall entrance. Tingay said the key is to evaluate what you already have in your downtown, and focus your efforts on providing a new service. This cannot be done through competition, but completion, or as Tingay calls it “comple-tition,” making sure your neighbors are successful too.
“Seventy-eight cents of every dollar you spend locally get put back into the local economy, and simply help the economy grow stronger and better. When you buy local it could be your child’s piano teacher or little league coach you’re supporting, and it’s also your neighbor,” said Tingay.
The Main Street Program’s design point of focus centers on everything physical, from statues and facades to landscaping and painting. As Tingay explained, everything that meets the eye, if you stood under the traffic lights and did a 360-degree turn.
Promotion focuses on getting feet on the street through special events, while organization focuses on current business inventory and how to support it, business retention and recruitment efforts, as well as entrepreneurship. “Entrepreneurship is often better than recruiting,” said Tingay. “You can first test markets through strategies like pop-ups, where a business venture fills a vacancy for only three months to see if it is viable. I’ve seen it happen and work before and while they may not stay in that space, they may find another they like downtown.
“It’s not a silver bullet or a winning lotto ticket that revitalizes a downtown,” said Tingay. “It takes a series of incremental victories and successes, and you should celebrate each one.”
Ann Cousins, from the Preservation Land Trust of Vermont, gave examples of small towns in Vermont where the program has worked. “We still have something special here in Vermont,” said Cousins. “We continue to have a mix of commercial and residential downtowns, but in the Midwest they've lost that. We still have something special to lose.”
The Preservation Trust of Vermont helped to revitalize 352 buildings across the state last year, focusing on downtowns, village centers, and community space. The trust works as an advocacy group helping to obtain historic preservation tax credits for building owners as well as helping to save endangered buildings that are set to be razed for the construction of gas stations and chain stores.
Dave Marchegiani, a Readsboro Selectboard member, asked Tingay and Cousins how the program can help a town create jobs. “We lost 500 jobs in 20 years,” said Marchegiani “We lost Yankee and our lumber mill and we want to restore a dozen vacant homes and spaces downtown. We’re trying, but people walk away because there are no jobs.”
Cousins said the key was using the resources you already have while promoting the industrial and commercial spaces available. In Readsboro’s case, Cousins said, use the budding art community, and continue to find uses for, and restoration of, the Bullock building.
Sue Bailey, also from Readsboro, asked what the program recommends for the numerous people in town who have home occupations and businesses, and if there’s a way to bring them together or make them less hidden.
Tingay said home occupations sometimes make it tough to meet clients, and if home businesses cooperate to find an office they can all use, it opens those businesses to looking at vacancies in their downtown, and brings them out to interact with their town’s business community.
Tingay restated that it’s important to remember that revitalization is a slow, incremental process.
“I just hope I live to see it,” said Marchegiani.
The workshops are being funded with a grant from the US Economic Development Administration, as well as support from the Windham Regional Commision, the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation, and the Bennington County Regional Commission. The $472,000 grant is being used to help the 20 hardest hit villages and downtowns in order to create economic restructuring to bring back even stronger communities.