Forty Years of Supporting Main Streets: Q&A with Main Street America’s Patrice Frey

By Priya Chhaya posted 08-06-2020 15:54


Forty years ago a group of like minded individuals came together to start the National Main Street Center, a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Over the years, the program supported communities by building tools, a network, and a strategy for protecting the economic vitality of older and historic downtown and commercial district corridors against the threats of sprawl. 

Today, Main Street America continues to serve those same communities, supporting small businesses and residents through the ever-changing landscape – and our current crisis with COVID-19. To mark this anniversary, I asked Patrice Frey, current president and CEO of Main Street America about their work to combat the challenges from the pandemic, along with the need to be a more inclusive and equitable program for the benefit of all. 

Main Street just marked its 40th anniversary. What do you see as the organization's biggest accomplishment? 

When the National Trust for Historic Preservation founded the Main Street program in 1980, our founders astutely understood that their innovative approach to help revitalize older and historic downtowns would only be successful if they had strong local partners to bring it to life. The fact that our organization has been able to bring their vision to fruition—helping to steadily build a powerful grassroots movement of passionate volunteers and local and state leaders who are dedicated to locally-owned, locally-driven prosperity -- is easily our proudest achievement. It is because of these individuals working together that we’ve seen such profound transformation on Main Streets across the nation. To date, over 2,000 communities have been a part of our network and we are proud that our national movement continues to thrive and grow.

One of the programs that Main Street America launched as part of the COVID-19 Recovery is the HartBeat of Main Street Grant Program. | Credit: Main Street American

How has COVID-19 changed organizational focus over the past several months? 

Our highest priority has always been supporting our Network and that has not changed. What has changed is the types of resources we offer and how we offer them as we are now all working remotely and unable to be in the field. I’m extremely proud of how we quickly we pivoted and responded which includes the development of our COVID-19 recovery-oriented resource center, Main Street Forward (MSF). Frequently updated, MSF features a wide range of free resources for Main Street leaders, including guidance as it relates to Four Point activities, research, advocacy efforts, and best practices and examples from around the Network. Additionally, we developed a recovery work plan using the Main Street Approach as a framework, as well as a webinar series focusing on the latest resources and information on how to navigate the short-term and long-term impacts of COVID-19. 

We are also thrilled to be able to provide direct financial support to Main Streets and small businesses. Just last week we launched a new grant program in partnership with The Hartford to support brick-and-mortar businesses in commercial districts as they enter the next phases of reopening across the country. The HartBeat of Main Street Grant Program will fund solutions that help small business owners respond and adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic, and also help to revitalize and strengthen older and historic downtown commercial districts. A minimum of 50 percent of grants will benefit diverse-owned businesses, as defined by the Small Business Administration as minority, woman, veteran, disabled, and/or LGBTQ-owned. 

In May, thanks to the generous support of Joe and Marge Grills, we provided eight Main Street programs with grants of $10,000 each through the Grills Fund for Main Street Revitalization to support innovative revitalization efforts to address impacts of COVID-19. I encourage everyone to check out these replicable ideas and consider implementing in your own communities.

In the last few months there has been an a strong push for organizations to be less performative and more honest in how their work contributes to systemic racial and social inequities. What does that mean for Main Street America? What are some initial things you are working on to meet this charge?

We are committed to the belief that Main Streets are for everyone, and we know that Main Streets can be a force for good in addressing the challenge of racial inequity. We’ve been planning strategies to further this work in our organization and throughout the Main Street Network. So far, we’ve been sharing examples from Main Street communities that are engaged in anti-racism efforts and published several pieces with ideas for Main Street programs to engage in this work, including conducting an inventory of a downtown’s business owner demographics, providing additional support to Black entrepreneurs, and auditing economic vitality programming to ensure its reaching minority business owners.

Part of the work of Main Stret America involves gathering and sharing information. In this map, MSA took a look at where protests for Black Lives Matter occurred. | Credit: Main Street America

Moving forward, we’ll be offering anti-racism trainings (that the Main Street America staff also went through) to the Main Street State Coordinators, pursuing partnerships to bring diverse voices into the conversation about Main Streets, and providing guidance and services to Main Street communities about how to promote inclusivity and anti-racism in their community.

A big part of the work of MSA is the on the ground field work done by your team of road warriors and Urban Main. How has their work changed over the last few months?

While not being on the road has been an adjustment for our Field Services Team, thanks to technology, the team has been able to provide the majority of their services from their own homes. They remain as busy as ever, providing support to communities over video conferencing, and shifting some of their usual offerings in response to the pandemic including specialized webinars to communities on topics like Board Leadership through COVID and Design in COVID-19 Response and Recovery. I encourage everyone to check out the fantastic new COVID-19 Trends blog series by Vice President of Revitalization Programs Matt Wagner, Ph.D. that offers insights into how we can expect COVID to impact commercial districts in the short- and long-term.

Preservation Leadership Forum recently partnered with MSA on webinar series this month that focuses on advocacy. Why is this important right now?

 According to The Impact of COVID-19 on Small Businesses, a report outlining a survey of 5,850 small business owners we conducted in early April, nearly 7.5 million small businesses may be at risk of closing permanently by September. Further, approximately 35.7 million Americans employed by small businesses are at risk of unemployment as result of the COVID-19 crisis.

Clearly, Main Street’s businesses are facing a crisis like no other, and they need the support offered by local Main Street programs now more than ever. That’s why we’re advocating to Congress for $100M to be included in an upcoming stimulus to sustain and expand the essential work of Main Street leaders in every corner of the country.  For many Main Streets, there isn’t likely to be a speedy “return to normal” as stay-at-home orders lift; consumers are likely to continue to have fears about safely dinning, shopping, and making use of professional services. That means small businesses will need the hyperlocal support system offered by Main Street programs more than at any point previously to sustain themselves over the next 12 to 24 months. As trusted advocates with deep knowledge about the local business landscape and partners, Main Street directors are uniquely able to connect businesses to the resources they need, and broker creative solutions to get through the coming months.

We urge all supporters to help raise our collective voice for Main Streets to send a message to your United States Senator by filling out this form. On behalf of our Network, I want to thank everyone who is taking action!


Get Connected

Discuss this blog post and more on Forum’s new online community. Sign up now.