Planning Winter 2021

Q&A

Main Streets Are More Important Than Ever

A strong foundation of local resources will help them recover from the effects of COVID.

Memorial Day Parade, Crystal Lake, Illinois. Photo by Diana Kenny

Memorial Day Parade, Crystal Lake, Illinois. Photo by Diana Kenny

By Julie Von Bergen

Mary Means is widely known for leading the team that created the National Main Street Center. More than 1,600 towns and historic neighborhood corridors in 40-plus states have successfully used the Main Street Approach to bring people back to their historic cores. The movement has been called the most effective economic development program in America. 

Main Street's Comebacks

Her new book tells the stories of how citizens, small business owners, and civic leaders in hundreds of towns and city neighborhood corridors have brought life back to the heart of their communities — and they can emerge strongly from the COVID-19 pandemic. Means received the National Trust for Historic Preservation's 2020 Louise du Pont Crowninshield Award.

The book is available through your local main street bookseller or here.


PLANNING: Main Streets and downtowns in small towns across the country are facing huge challenges due to COVID-19. How are today's challenges similar to or different from the ones they faced when the Main Street program first started?

MEANS: Main Streets are surprisingly resilient. Most have come through other existential challenges that were expected to kill them off — think of the Great Depression or the proliferation of shopping malls in the 1970s. When the Main Street program began 40-plus years ago, towns had to figure it out by themselves, in isolation. There was no internet, no Google. There were few, if any, downtown organizations. Today there are networks of help and support for towns and civic leaders across the country.

Last March as everything shut down, it was amazing to see how fast Main Street organizations sprang into action — helping retailers and restaurants navigate PPP applications, working with local government to create safe outdoor eating and shopping spaces, coaching novices to online selling, and sharing experiences with their peers across the nation.

Though vaccines now exist, we still don't know when some semblance of life before COVID will be here to stay. But savvy towns are already taking steps towards recovery. There's a river of practical information coming from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Main Street America, and APA — filled with doable actions that can help smooth the path forward.

A lot has changed, but what hasn't is the important role our Main Streets play in community building. In isolation, we humans long to be with others, to celebrate, to mark holidays — or just to hang out. Forty years ago a group of preservationists took steps to save downtown's historic buildings. In the process we learned that Main Street lives in America's heart and is vital to our collective sense of well-being.

PLANNING: It can be overwhelming to planners and other leaders to know where to start the recovery process. What should come first?

MEANS: Whether or not they know it, most communities — certainly those with downtown organizations — have already begun to ready themselves for "after COVID." They are learning from their emergency responses: changing policies and regulations about outdoor eating and selling, for instance, or zoning that disallows business uses in homes, or land-use policies that tilt toward outlying chain store development rather than supporting locally owned downtown businesses.

Our Zoom lives have proven that quality internet access is essential infrastructure. Zillow reports that towns with good schools, affordable housing, and a vibrant Main Street are already attracting relocation interest from big city residents who can work from anywhere. Anywhere with broadband access, that is. Savvy states and municipalities are actively taking steps to fill gaps in internet service.

Whether or not they know it, most communities — certainly those with downtown organizations — have already begun to ready themselves for "after COVID."

A caution: helping individual small businesses alone is not going to lead to economic recovery. Urban economist Bruce Katz points out that places must recover as hives of commerce and community if individual small businesses are going to make it. Katz coined the term "regenerator" to describe place-based organizations that are the vital accelerators of recovery. Main Street organizations meet that test.

By the time this is published, hopefully state and local governments — including "regenerator" organizations — are benefiting from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, strengthened to stem the virus's spread and rebuild better.

PLANNING: How do you inspire community members and groups during an ongoing pandemic when there are so many problems to tackle at once?

MEANS: By giving them hope and something to rally around even now, during the pandemic. In the book I highlight several heartwarming initiatives that brought communities together — in socially distanced ways, of course.

PLANNING: How can equity, inclusion, and resilience be built into a town's recovery efforts?

MEANS: The pandemic has painfully revealed widespread inequality. Last summer's powerful worldwide marches for racial justice even reached into the nation's small towns. Resulting activism has led to enhanced effort to dismantle unfair systems of privilege. Amending zoning to increase affordable housing by allowing accessory dwelling units in single family houses is an example.

A number of Main Street organizations are proactively reaching out to help minority entrepreneurs gain access to financing and mentoring. Baltimore's Downtown Partnership recently announced BOOST — Black Owned & Operated Storefront Tenancy — an initiative that will provide robust technical and legal services and help with permitting, plus up to $50,000 for build-out and operations. Providing free or low-cost broadband service to the entire community will lift everyone's boats.

PLANNING: How will Main Streets change in the next several years? Should expectations or goals change going forward?

MEANS: My sense is that we're entering a period of transition in terms of recovery. Even with vaccines and more widespread immunity, it's not likely that everything on Main Street will return to "normal" quickly.

However, Main Street is a distinct place, one where people want to be, so its recovery will happen. That said, we mourn the loss of familiar businesses that were unable to make it through. There will be vacancies. Towns with active main street organizations have a leg up in that many are already preparing to help landlords attract complementary tenants to fill them. Community celebrations — Fourth of July, festivals, and other events that draw people together will once again enliven town centers. And the flexible "Main Street Four Point Approach," tested in thousands of towns over the last 40 years, will continue to frame the work of bringing life back to downtowns.

Julie Von Bergen is APA's senior editor.


Mary Means
About the Interviewee

Mary Means

For more than 30 years, Mary Means & Associates provided strategic planning services to public interest clients — communities, state agencies, universities, and nonprofit organizations, helping them build bridges between plans and people.