The main movers on Main Street
In April, the Washington, D.C.-based National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) presented its Great American Main Street Awards. The annual awards recognize exceptional efforts by communities to revitalize historic and traditional downtown and neighborhood commercial districts. Each honoree receives $2,500, a bronze plaque and road signs to commemorate its achievement.
This year, the NTHP honored five cities.
In the early 1980s, downtown Danville was waning. Several buildings needed repair, and a new bypass and regional mall were draining business from downtown merchants. In response, Danville residents formed the Heart of Danville (with the help of the Kentucky Heritage Council, the state historic preservation office based in Frankfort) to restore the town’s Victorian architecture and to encourage economic development.
Since then, virtually every structure in the town’s central business district has been rehabilitated. Today, as a result of the group’s efforts, downtown Danville houses city and county government offices, financial institutions, investment firms, a regional hospital, a post office, a private college, a grocery store and a mix of retail and professional services.
Heart of Danville supported Centre College’s bid to host the 2000 vice presidential debate, and, in preparation for the event, painted eight downtown buildings, installed new awnings and made other repairs. Additionally, the group is working with community agencies on a $500,000 streetscape project and a $5 million initiative to keep the post office downtown.
In the 1990s alone, $52 million was invested in downtown Danville. During that time, more than 100 businesses opened, and 324 jobs were created. The vacancy rate is less than 3 percent.
The 1980s marked a turning point for tiny Elkader. First came the farm crisis, followed by the emergence of discount stores in neighboring cities, forcing retail and other businesses to close. At the same time, the Iowa Department of Transportation completed a bypass that daily routed more than 4,000 vehicles around Elkader rather than through its central business district. And, to make matters worse, the Turkey River flooded, damaging buildings along Main Street.
Established businesses began to fold, and Elkader’s reputation as a state leader in per capita retail sales began to crumble. That is, until community leaders and residents came together to revitalize their downtown.
The transformation was launched with a New Orleans-style funeral to celebrate the death of despair and the birth of hope. Then, with technical support from NTHP’s National Main Street Center, Main Street Elkader was formed, and the group began working with the local Chamber of Commerce and the Elkader Development Corp. to produce a master plan for downtown revitalization.
Design proposals were generated for every building in the central business district, and, slowly, the structures were restored to reflect their original façades. A local contractor invested $250,000 in three buildings and created a restaurant with outdoor seating along the Turkey River.
Volunteers from EDC raised more than $65,000 to build walkways along the Turkey River and to install lighting along the historic Keystone Bridge. Residents donated another $100,000 and approved bonds for $300,000 towards development of a library in three of the vacant downtown buildings.
Since 1991, when Elkader’s revitalization efforts began, the town has rehabilitated or restored 77 buildings (99 percent of which are occupied) and created 83 jobs. Real estate values have jumped 32 percent, and private investment in rehabilitation/property acquisition has exceeded $2 million. To top it off, retail sales have grown 38 percent.
In 1984, comedian Bill Cosby visited Mansfield and opened his act with a scathing assessment of the city’s downtown. The area around Fourth and Main streets was especially blighted and known only for its abandoned buildings, bars and prostitution. Cosby wondered why Main Street even existed. Mayor Ed Meehan, seated in the audience, did not like what he heard, and he initiated the North End Area Development Plan in response.
In the middle of Mansfield’s most blighted area, the city created Richland Carrousel Park, which features an old-fashioned carrousel. The city pledged $300,000 for the project, and individuals and corporations contributed $600,000, funding the first hand-carved carrousel made in the United States since the 1930s.
Since the park’s opening in 1991, developers have added retail, restaurant and office space to North Main Street area. The carrousel attracts 20,000 riders a year, and, in 1999, the Carrousel District had reached 100 percent occupancy of its finished space. In the same area, the Richland Academy has opened a $4.2 million, hands-on arts and sciences center for children.
As a result of Mansfield’s revitalization efforts, in 1999 alone, 22 businesses opened downtown; 61 jobs were created; $6.2 million was invested downtown; and more than 70,000 square feet of vacant space was filled.
Prior to 1978, Enid prospered with retail and professional services. However, with the collapse of the oil and agriculture industries in the 1980s, and with the development of a shopping mall on the west side of town, retailers and professionals fled quickly.
Main Street Enid began its revitalization efforts in 1994 with a streetscape project. It followed up with aggressive marketing — scheduling and promoting a full calendar of special events and retail promotions to attract residents and visitors downtown.
Enid also got an economic boost when it created Adventure Quest, the nation’s largest outdoor learning playground and hands-on arts and sciences learning center. Twelve thousand people volunteered labor for the facility, which is housed in a former grocery warehouse.
Main Street Enid has renovated the façades of more than 30 downtown buildings. Revitalization efforts have resulted in the creation of 600 jobs, and 56 businesses have either opened or expanded. Investment from public and private sources totals $14 million.
Walla Walla, Wash.
In the early 1980s, downtown Walla Walla was declining. Major retailers had defected to nearby malls, and the vacancy rate within the business district neared 30 percent.
In response, business and property owners organized the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation and adopted a four-point approach — design, organization, promotion and economic restructuring — to revitalization.
A streetscape project set the city in motion, and renovation projects soon followed. The private sector invested in downtown by renovating the Library Theater and the Die Brucke Building — both aimed at keeping the Bon Marché department store downtown. (The Die Brucke rehab accommodated a 4,000 square foot expansion by the department store.) The Marcus Whitman Hotel and Conference Center also is being renovated, adding hotel rooms, a 300-seat meeting facility, 30,000 square feet of high-tech office space and the American Motorcycle Museum to downtown.
Aggressive business recruitment and building restorations have reduced Walla Walla’s downtown vacancy rate to 4 percent. Rehabilitation projects have garnered $25 million in private investment and $15 million in public funds. Eight hundred jobs have been created, and 125 businesses have opened or expanded since the city’s revitalization efforts began.
Details about the Great American Main Street projects were supplied by NTHP. For more information about the awards — including eligibility — visit the Web site for NTHP’s National Main Street Center at http://mainstreet.org.