Thoughts from the Main Street Now Conference

Place seems to matter more than ever, and Main Street areas across the United States are finding ways to re-assert their economic importance despite emerging ‘disruptive’ advancements in retail (e.g. e-commerce). That was the underlying theme in many of the sessions I attended at the recent 2017 Main Street Now conference in Pittsburgh, pit 22Pennsylvania. Attended by more than 1,600 people, the annual conference brings together key private and public sector decision makers to share successes and challenges in preservation-based downtown revitalization.

After a few weeks to collect my thoughts, here are the ideas that continue to resonate with me on ways to improve downtown districts:

Start with the Petunias: Staff from Project for Public Spaces presented a number of times throughout the conference, often suggesting that major redevelopment initiatives should “start with the petunias.” Starting with lighter, quicker, cheaper projects – simple, short-term, and low-cost – can build momentum for long term and major initiatives, as well as allow for testing (and refining) new ideas over time.

Recognize Main Street’s Impact: Jon Stover and Associates has been working with US Main Streets to understand their economic and fiscal returns over the last year. Though early, the results are notable. Washington State, for example, generated $13 in private investment for every $1 in public investment in their Main Street programs last year.

Makers can bring the mix back to Main Street: Main streets were historically home to a range of uses, from retail and services to light manufacturing. That diversity gave them their strength and vibrancy. Todd Barman positioned the maker movement – a community of hobbyists and craftspeople using shared spaces and equipment to create electronics, arts and crafts, food and beverages, and a range of other goods – as a potential driver of the return to vibrant, mixed-use areas by filling vacancies and incubating new business opportunities.

Stop trying to create events: NEWaukee’s Jeremy Fojut noted that you leave and event, but you remember an experience. That’s why his firm focuses on improving people’s engagement with their city (Milwaukee) by creating signature experiences. Initiatives like the Night Market have improved community pride and engagement of young professionals. For Milwaukee’s employers, that means a good supply of skilled people that care about and want to stay in the city.

Engage your youth to reach your youth: Casey Woods from Emporia Main Street in Kansas provided useful strategies to translate data findings into actions. What stood out to me was their success in youth engagement – a common struggle in economic development. By getting Emporia’s youth to deliver the survey, they got meaningful results and high response rates from their youth. The shared lesson: if you want to survey a demographic group, get that group involved in the survey.

Though focused on American communities and experiences, the conference outlined a range of tools and tactics that could be used to pursue economic development and renewal in Rural Ontario’s communities and commercial centres as well. The Regional Economic Development Branch is always on the lookout for opportunities like this, to improve our own programs and resources.

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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