Lasting Impressions from the Main Street Now Conference

Downtowns are back. In fact, many all over North America are thriving under the guidance of people and organizations passionate about their Main Street areas. That was the key message shared through the 2016 Main Street Now conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The annual conference brings together key private and public sector decision makers to share successes and challenges, as well as foster new ideas and solutions for preservation-based downtown revitalization.

Here are five key takeaways from the conference to consider when thinking about revitalizing your own community:

Loved places are economically vibrant places: Opening keynote speaker Peter Kagayama’s message was simple: human connections to place are critical to economic vibrancy. Public art like I See What you Mean (i.e. ‘the Big Blue Bear’) and Cloud Gate (i.e. ‘the Bean’) have become well-loved and memorable assets that resonate with visitors and residents in Denver and Chicago. Smaller citizen-led initiatives like Mice on Main have created these connections on a smaller scale. Improving community economic vibrancy relies on finding and strengthening the assets that are already loved by citizens, and supporting the people that are already sharing their love of the community with others.

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Public sign thanking NEWaukee

Signature experiences can build and shape lasting connections to place: “If you don’t offer a top notch culture, someone else will” said Jeremy Fojut, the Chief Idea Officer at NEWaukee. Signature experiences – like NEWaukee’s Night Market – define a place’s culture, and influence its ability to attract and retain talented people. Establishing these experiences requires relationship building from the neighbourhood-level to the Mayor’s office, paired with innovative approaches to fundraising and placemaking. Truly unique experiences can appeal to prospective residents, or change the perception of existing residents about the places they live.

Downtown development is generally more productive: Iowa Main Streets provided a range of examples to illustrate how some revitalized multi-story mixed-use buildings are providing a higher value (i.e. tax assessment) per acre than their suburban commercial sector counterparts (i.e. big-box stores).

downtownStorefront improvements can create a broad range of positive impacts: A recent study by the University of Wisconsin-Extension and Wisconsin Economic Development Commission established that storefront improvements have a wide range of benefits. Storefront (or façade) improvements have increased first-time customers and sales (for the building and surrounding ones as well), driven other investments (e.g. interior redesign), and generated significant returns on sales and rental income from even small initial outlays.

Community transformation efforts need balance: The National Main Street Center Four Point Approach – the inspiration for OMAFRA’s downtown revitalization program – has recently undergone a refresh. Though the emphasis has shifted from a focus on the four points to a focus on developing transformational strategies that unite the four points, the theory stays the same – community revitalization requires a balanced effort across economic vitality, design, promotions, and organization.

Though the conference focused on American context and experiences, these findings are relevant to all ‘main streets’ and downtowns across Canada. Rural Ontario is home to some of the province’s most unique and historic commercial centres. The key to ensuring their continued sustainability requires a commitment to creating a culture that appeals to a wide range of residents and potential visitors, while ensuring that the tools to pursue economic development and renewal are in place.

Contact your local Agriculture and Rural Economic Development Advisor for details on how to implement a Downtown Revitalization program in your community.

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