How Are America’s Main Streets Doing?


In uncertain times, Main Street can anchor a community. As the coronavirus pandemic spreads, businesses small and large face unprecedented challenges. But small businesses are known for their resiliency, and in the midst of this crisis, they have a profound opportunity to prove their value to the community. As small businesses seek strategies to sustain themselves, they should look beyond their individual storefronts and toward the broader Main Street community.

Main Street is no stranger to challenging times. A decade ago, challenges like the online-retail boom and a weakened economy created uncertainty for downtown, brick-and-mortar businesses. But these businesses and their supporters got creative, finding compelling ways to bring people to Main Street. By investing in, rather than vacating, their downtown districts, these forward-thinking entrepreneurs turned Main Street into a walkable, charming destination that brought customers back to the bricks and mortar.

The rebound of Main Street businesses is particularly apparent in the retail market. “Retail is changing, and we are shedding jobs in lots of retail, but it’s primarily in large, suburban kind of retail chain stores, big-box retailers,” Ed McMahon, chairman of the board of directors of the National Main Street Center, told New England Public Radio in 2017. “And nationwide, there is a resurgence of small, locally owned retail because people actually want to go to a place that they like to hang out, to have an interesting experience.”

The National Main Street Center, through its Main Street America program, tracks the economic impact of Main Streets across the country. According to the most recent numbers available at the time of this writing, American Main Streets have experienced a net gain of more than 143,000 businesses, more than 640,000 jobs and nearly 285,000 rehabilitated buildings since 1980. In 2018, communities saw approximately $25.64 in new, local investment for every dollar that they invested in their Main Street districts. 

Now, as small businesses face a new period of uncertainty, they can turn to Main Street for support once again. By working together toward a common goal, Main Street businesses can pull themselves and their communities through the challenges that lie ahead.  

The importance of Main Street organizations

The numbers reported by Main Street America don’t just show what is happening on Main Street. Perhaps more importantly, they also show how this change is occurring.

No business grows in a vacuum. Rather, success is a team effort that materializes when a strong network of like-minded business owners works together to create a unique downtown experience.

Take Main Street Wellington in Wellington, Ohio, for example. Wellington is a small village in northern Ohio, about 40 miles outside of Cleveland. Despite its small size, Wellington has a bustling downtown, thanks to Main Street Wellington. The organization of local business owners and community leaders capitalized on the village’s history to revitalize this area. The group has restored many of the historic, red-brick facades on Main Street and is working to preserve the inlaid “cheese” signs that represent the period of local history when more than 40 cheese factories filled the village. For this work, Main Street Wellington earned recognition last year as America’s Favorite Main Street in Independent We Stand’s America’s Main Streets Contest.

The Local Crowd (TLC) Monadnock, another example, takes a more modern approach. TLC Monadnock organized after a large power plant left its New Hampshire community, creating a void in the local economy and job market. Putting digital tools to use in a local way, TLC Monadnock launched a crowdfunding platform for its local entrepreneurs, small businesses and causes. Through this community-based crowdfunding model, TLC Monadnock has raised more than $100,000 for local campaigns in just over two years. This money supports downtown projects and Main Street businesses, making the community a more unique and vibrant place to live. Rather than attracting outside businesses to fill the void created in its community, TLC Monadnock has empowered local residents to reinvest in their own people and businesses.

Across the country, Main Street-based organizations like Main Street Wellington and TLC Monadnock are driving change in their communities. These groups bring together small business owners and community organizers to create a strategic vision for the downtown community. They work to preserve local landmarks, host seasonal events and carry on annual traditions. They also engage with local decision-makers to make the community more small-business friendly. With revolving loan programs, grant programs and the like, they help local entrepreneurs start and grow their businesses, increasing the local tax base and giving customers more diversity in the local market.

The Main Street approach

At the national level, the National Main Street Center has spearheaded the Main Street movement for the past 40 years. Since 1980, the National Main Street Center has guided local organizations with its Four-Point Main Street Approach. The approach focuses on economic vitality, design, promotion and organization as the four pillars of community transformation.

Economic vitality emphasizes the need for financial tools that can assist new and existing businesses in the community, fund property development and support entrepreneurship. Design encourages the Main Street group to consider and optimize the physical and visual assets of the community’s downtown district. With promotion, Main Street organizations position their downtown district as the center of local economic and recreational activity. Finally, organization encourages local groups to work together and forge productive partnerships in pursuit of local prosperity.

By providing this framework for local organizations, the National Main Street Center has kickstarted the conversation around and the dedication to Main Street revitalization. The Main Street Approach gives local groups a starting point for their important work, which can be tailored to the specific needs of their individual markets. Entrepreneurs and small business owners stand to benefit from the work that these local groups accomplish using the Main Street Approach.

How you can support Main Street

There’s no question that Main Street organizations and their supporters will play an important role in helping local economies recover from the current crisis. In addition to promoting short-term vitality, the work that these groups do now will provide a blueprint for communities and small businesses to follow in future crises.

For this reason, it’s important to highlight the work that Main Street organizations do in their communities. Every year, residents nominate and vote for their local Main Street organizations in the America’s Main Streets Contest. The contest recognizes and celebrates the impact that Main Street organizations have on their communities. To reinforce this work, the winning Main Street receives a $25,000 cash prize, which allows the organization to continue and grow its work. Last year’s winner, Main Street Wellington, planned to use its cash prize to restore a downtown building that had been damaged in a fire.

This year’s America’s Main Streets Contest is currently underway. Anyone can easily nominate a local Main Street organization on the contest website. The contest will continue through June 2, when this year’s winning organization will be announced as America’s Favorite Main Street.

The contest is about more than a grand prize and a coveted title – it’s about highlighting the important work that Main Street organizations do in their communities. Small businesses are the backbone that keep local economies standing, and when they work together through Main Street organizations, they can also keep the community growing. For more information, visit www.mainstreetcontest.com.

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