2020 forced us all to hunker down at home with time to revisit our values. In Main Street’s Comeback: And How It Can Come Back Again, author Mary Means writes a convincing argument that the desire to revitalize our main streets is a core value of American culture. Means demonstrates that the emotional pull of linking arms with neighbors to incrementally tackle our downtown revitalization problems is deeply rooted in all of us—and that is why the Main Street Approach will help us climb out of the stagnant state caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
If you are unfamiliar with Mary Means, let me tell you she is the best kind of visionary. She’s been called the Queen of Main Street, a pioneer, and an award-winning innovator. She possesses a skill not all visionaries have—the ability to execute. In Main Street’s Comeback, she not only talks about the ideation of the Main Street Approach but the steps she has taken in her career to lead, mentor, and acknowledge the contributions of others along the way. She laid out the path and thousands of us are following.
My own career in historic preservation began at the table of my hometown, Woodstock, Virginia’s Main Street Events committee when I was 16. I had found the opportunity in my quest to pad my resume with volunteer hours thinking ahead to college applications. I recall feeling a little funny at the first meeting where I’m sitting across from the dad of a boy on my high school cross country team but my age didn’t matter—we had a Christmas parade and tree lighting event to plan. That is the beauty of Main Street, as Means illustrates, it offers an invitation to act, for anyone who wants to get involved.
The beginning chapters of the book are a fast-paced walk through the history of the Main Street movement. The free-flowing examples throughout the book will have you Googling for photos of every town mentioned. The advance praise is a written Rolodex of nationally-known revitalization players culminating with a foreword by preservation-thought leader Randall Mason.
The Main Street Approach fights for its place in the economic development field. As economic development officials across the country have to decide whether to spend their efforts recruiting Lowes to build on the outskirts of town or the Japanese company to fill a spot at the industrial park—Main Street, with its incremental approach is often overlooked. However, as Means states, the Main Street results present an “ironclad case.” The methodical (and quantifiable) documentation of the progress of each community to the state coordinator and up to the National Main Street Center sets the program apart from business improvement districts and 1960s-era economic development schemes.
Every time our firm, PlaceEconomics, has undertaken an economic impact study of a state Main Street program, those quarterly and yearly statistics form the backbone of the report. We find that the numbers speak loud and clear that Main Street works, but they don't capture the full story. The real impact can be felt when listening to the stories of people who work to make their Main Street a thriving place. The true proof of the Main Street concept is in the leaders it has cultivated. Every town has talented and passionate activists, and Main Street is the perfect place for them to direct their energy.
In my work, I’ve been fortunate to interact with many of these Main Street leaders and am continually blown away by them. If you ever find yourself in Crowley, Louisiana—find Mr. L.J and write down everything he says—and figure out a nice way of inviting yourself in to see his upper floor apartment. If you need a good laugh—Sharon Jablonski, the long-time manager of Morganton, North Carolina, will share mis-steps and triumphs that will have you in tears laughing. And if you want to be inspired—visit Water Valley, Mississippi where the can-do spirit of young people completely revitalized a community and caught the attention of the New York Times.
The Main Street Approach doesn’t allow you to be paralyzed by the amount of work to be done. If you implement all four points and find talent to staff each of them, the path becomes less daunting. Main Street is a mindset, a playbook, a way to link together and get things done for your community. Recovery from COVID-19 will be a long and community-wide effort—have you joined yet? If not, Means’ book will convince you.
You can order Mary Means book via Book Baby or Amazon and watch the video below from the recent ceremony where she was awarded the Louise du Pont Crowninshield Award at PastForward Online 2020.
Briana Grosicki is Associate Principal at PlaceEconomics. In this capacity, she helps balance the firm’s unabashed pursuit of analytical research with practical steps to maximize productivity. Her thorough knowledge of municipal preservation programs, civic data, real estate development, and advocacy add value to PlaceEconomics’ work and the preservation field.