Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Main Street: The Early Years 

12-09-2015 17:35

I guess this little vignette could have also been entitled "I Remember Main Street." However, my first thoughts when asked to write something about my years and experience with Main Street were not about finding a title, but rather that this is another sign that I am aging because someone is asking me to reflect back.

Prior to becoming one of the first three project managers in the demonstration phase of Main Street in 1977, I worked for the South Dakota Historic Preservation Center. My responsibilities centered around nominating sites to the National Register and promoting preservation in general.

On my many tours across South Dakota, I was able to drum up enthusiasm for residential historic districts, but when I got downtown, peoples` eyes glazed over and they began looking for exits when I started talking about preservation.

At the same time, I watched my hometown of Sioux Falls try every "big fix" project to rejuvenate its downtown--from pedestrian malls with no pedestrians to buildings obliterated for parking lots and "future development." Those involved in preservation in the 1970s probably had similar experiences.

At that time there were few, if any, public or private sector leaders who were even considering preservation. And just as bad as redevelopment or urban renewal were the theme approaches of the Wild West downtown and the Bavarian Village circulating among some communities. Obviously we had to find another way, a different approach to preserving historic commercial areas. Then along came the National Trust and its Main Street Project, which was launched by Mary Means, Midwest Regional Office Director at that time.

I became the project manager for the Trust in Hot Springs, South Dakota, and Tom Moriarity and Clark Schoettle took on similar duties in Madison, Indiana, and Galesburg, Illinois. I would love to say that we knew exactly or even had a good idea what to do. But we didn`t. The Main Street Project was truly a demonstration. We tried many things; some worked, some didn`t. We were proud to say that we were "street smart" preservationists.

We were accomplishing preservation "through the back door." We found that we had to spend a lot of time organizing the business people and cajoling the public sector in order to establish support. We developed and implemented various promotions to garner attention and support from the merchants and townspeople. We began, oh so slowly, to learn and talk about business recruitment, market analysis and real estate development. We gradually got people to commit to making visible changes with their buildings because we got their confidence, and we had free design assistance and modest grants to partially pay for implementation.

People often ask me when I knew that the program would go national, and I think all of us involved would say it was after a conference held in Columbus, Ohio. We had been laboring in Hot Springs for almost two years, and the Trust sponsored a conference on what we had learned so far. Over the days of that workshop, we told stories of our successes and failures. We said over and over that you had to have a common sense approach to downtown revitalization in small towns. We also found that big fix, big city, and demolition ideas were not going to work. At the conclusion of the conference, the audience gave us, really Main Street, a standing spontaneous and prolonged ovation. Needless to say we were overwhelmed. It was then that we realized there was a hunger for this information, and people understood and could identify with what the Trust was trying to accomplish.

Each of the three original towns had different challenges, conditions, and potential. Therefore, we never came up with a specific formula, but rather an approach--the now famous Four Point Approach: Organization, Design, Promotion, and Economic Restructuring. This Main Street approach in essence is saying that your downtown program needs to be comprehensive--not based solely on design or economic restructuring.

Another conclusion of our efforts was that a full-time project manager is essential to a Main Street Program`s success.

We heard many protests from local leaders about the cost of a full-time employee. But as we said then--and still believe now--it is the best investment a community can make for long-term success.

I truly enjoyed being a project manager. It helped me grow professionally because I was involved in so many issues, and personally because of the many friendships and experiences that resulted.

As work was progressing in the three towns, the Trust was gathering financial and political support to take the Main Street program national.

A six-state, 30-community demonstration program was created. Over a three-year period we reconfirmed many lessons and learned a great deal more about downtown revitalization.

What was clearly evident was that those states that did not fully embrace the Main Street approach and let politics dictate many decisions were not successful. On the other hand, those state and community leaders who became "believers" have successful statewide programs today.

My involvement with Main Street was truly one of the greatest experiences in my life. I used to give an overview speech that concluded with remarks something like this:

What really makes this program work is the people who care about downtown, who believe that their community`s Main Street is important and worth saving, who realize that perhaps this program is not just about revitalizing downtown, but about holding on to values, life experiences and hopes for future generations.

Publication Date: Spring 1995

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Author(s):Scoff Gerloff
Volume:9
Issue:3

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