How to Transform Your Downtown in 48 Hours

Isaac Kremer/ January 30, 2014/ tactical urbanism/ 0 comments

Note: This story was originally published as the Main Street Story of the Week by the National Main Street Center and posted on January 30, 2014

The 2014 National Main Streets Conference will feature many opportunities to learn about unique downtown revitalization tactics in both downtown Detroit and across the country. Here’s a story from Downtown Middlesboro, KY! For more information on educational sessions and tours visit the conference website.

What self-respecting main Street manager would turn down an opportunity to transform a block of their downtown in 48 hours for $1,000 or less? That’s how I met Mike Lydon of Street Plans Collaborative in 2010. He visited me in Oyster Bay, New York, where I was the director of a Main Street program restoring Theodore Roosevelt’s home town. Lydon and his team helped us organize the third Build a Better Block project ever held. The first was in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas a few months prior, and another one was held in Fort Worth before our Oyster Bay event.

The idea is simple. Get a bunch of volunteers to carry out low-cost interventions that plant the seeds for long-term change. What better response to shrinking budgets, tight capital markets, and declining civic participation? Get citizens involved in the act revitalizing their town. The only thing is that this idea is not a new one. The National Main Street Center and over a thousand Main Street programs across the country have been doing this very same thing for over 30 years now.

Shortly after the event in Oyster Bay, Lydon co-authored the Tactical Urbanism Manual. The document was made available for free download. In a short period of time over 100,000 downloads happened. This documented dozens of projects from all over the world to bring about transformation and change on a shoestring budget. Lydon was not the only one to pick up on this trend. Recently, Fernanda Sotelo while a graduate student at Columbia University wrote her thesis, “Beyond Temporary: Preserving the Existing Built Environment with Temporary Urban Interventions.” This analyzed several Better Block projects and argued how Tactical Urbanism can be a driver of historic preservation. The big piece of advice she had was to engage a historic preservation planner in the process. For communities fortunate to have such a person, they are ahead of the game and probably well on their way to revitalization. For everyone else, these responsibilities most likely fall on the Main Street manager as the leading advocate for historic preservation in their town.

Fast forward to Middlesborough, Kentucky, just a few months back. The Board of Directors of Discover Downtown Middlesboro identified Tactical Urbanism as a strategy they hoped to employ as early as December 2012. At that time the following goal was set for the Design Committee: “

Utilize “tactical urbanism” as a tool to encourage small, immediate, finer-grain improvements that lead to larger and more comprehensive change over time.”

A few months later the organization secured an $8,000 grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission and administered by the Brushy Fork Institute at Berea College to bring in Lydon to help with the planning and implementation of a Better Block event. Around that time another happy coincidence happened. The CommunityMatters ® initiative launched their Successful Communities Contest. They challenged towns all over the country to come up with one idea to make their town better. Since our planning for the Better Block event was set to kick-off the same day as the conference call launching the contest, we decided to piggy-back the two events on one another. Being we are in the South, a full spread of barbeque was served in between the two meetings. Middlesborough eventually submitted our project to this national competition, and, lo and behold, after nearly two weeks of daily online voting and waging a vigorous campaign – we won the competition outright.

This understandably generated a significant amount of buzz. The local paper and radio stations got into the act. People from all over were voting for Better Block Middlesborough. Even our U.S. Congressman Hal Rogers cheered us along on Twitter.

After winning the competition and the $500 prize that came along with it, the hard work began. Now we actually had to go out and plan, design, and implement the two-dozen interventions we said would be done.

Once again some happy coincidences helped this idea along. The first was finding a willing building owner. There is a 1940s theater on South 20th Street, one block of the main intersection of our downtown that we affectionately call Fountain Square. Not only was the owner willing to let us into the theater, they also allowed us to fix up several adjacent vacant storefronts in the same building for use as pop-up-shops.

Around this time our partnership building efforts really took off. We had colleges and universities in the area and from as far away as Lexington offer to help out. Area churches, school groups, and residents lend their help to the project. Some missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints just happened to have an apartment in the same building we were working in. They got involved.

One of the biggest boosts came from the Fund for the Arts in Louisville. We were able to match every dollar raised through their website with an additional dollar of matching funds. We attracted $5,000 of local money, that helped us earn an additional $5,000 from the Humana Foundation. So all of the sudden our small $1,000 budget expanded to over $10,000.

By this point the event took on a life of its own. As I often described it to volunteers, think of Better Block as being like Christmas and your birthday all wrapped up into one. Or more simply put – think of anything you’ve ever wanted to see done downtown, and use this event as a way to achieve those visions.

We reopened the Park Theater that had been closed for over 30 years. The first night of the event we gave it a thorough power washing. The next day we painted the inside and installed a screen to show movies. That night we screened It’s a Wonderful Life before an audience of several dozen paying attendees. The event earned us $138. More significantly it showed the pent up demand for entertainment downtown.

In one of the vacant storefronts we started an Exploration Center for children ages 0-10. This was designed by educators to private creative play and kinesthetic learning opportunities. The storefront was divided into sections with different stations – one for music, another for food, and another set up like a school. We designed the Center so it could take on a life after the Better Block event and it has.

Our work didn’t stop there. Pop-up-shops went in up and down the block. The shop “Slice of Art” sold framed art, antiques, and pie and cookies. We loosely modeled this after the Pie Lab in Greensboro, Alabama ( This pop-up shop earned us $127 over the weekend and another $100 for some of the art that was sold.

One of the greatest successes were our parklets. These six by twenty foot wooden structures were placed on the street in spaces used for parallel parking. Tables with colorful umbrellas and chairs were put on and around them. Landscaping and garden lighting further helped the parklets stand out. One of the businesses we placed a parklet in front of recorded their highest grossing sales for a single day. The parklet also showed how to generate vitality for the downtown and profit for businesses by creating friendly and welcoming places for people where there just had been parking before.

We did plenty of other interventions too, all of which are well documented in this YouTube video. Perhaps the greatest take-away from the Better Block Middlesborough event and the earlier Oyster Bay event is this – there is no better time than now to organize the people and resources to bring about change in your downtown. Don’t wait for an expensive study or plan. Just go out and make things better NOW! Start with something simple that you and a few volunteers can accomplish over a weekend. Then work up to bigger and better things from there.

There is a principle in the Better Block movement called “Blackmail Yourself.” Basically set a date and say you’re going to do something, so you can’t wiggle out of having to go ahead with doing it. To that point, Better Block Middlesborough will have a reprise on May 10, 2014. Those interested in being part of this exciting event firsthand and to see what it is all about, we welcome you. We have room for you!

You’ll have another chance to see and hear more about this exciting work during the National Main Street Conference in Detroit from May 18-21, 2014. Be sure to attend our workshop “Using Tactical Urbanism to Start Preserving Your Downtown Now!” We hope to use this workshop as an opportunity to help these ideas spread to Main Street communities throughout the country.

If you are unable to make it to either of these events, just give us a call at (606) 248-6155 or find us on Facebook or Twitter @DDMBoro. You can follow the progress of Better Block Middlesborough on Twitter @BetterBlockBoro/

Isaac D. Kremer is an economic development and historic preservation practitioner. As executive director of the Oyster Bay Main Street Association on Long Island from 2008 to 2012, he restored over a dozen buildings. Now executive director of Discover Downtown Middlesboro in Kentucky, Kremer has been a strong advocate for tactical urbanism. Kremer is a member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Preservation Action. He lives in Middlesborough with his wife Chrissy and two boys Edward and Thomas in a 1920s Bungalow @1920Bungalow that they are lovingly restoring.

Note: Isaac continued to serve as Executive Director of Discover Downtown Middlesboro through September 2016 before taking a new position in Metuchen, New Jersey.

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About Isaac Kremer

Isaac Kremer is a transformational leader with a track record of success revitalizing downtowns in the United States. He has written and spoken extensively. He's always on the lookout for new and innovative ideas to unlock the potential of downtown areas.

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