Americans Return to Main Street – Review of Main Street’s Comeback by Mary Means
By Isaac D. Kremer
To purchase: Means, Mary. Main Street’s Comeback: And How it Can Come Back Again. HammonWood Press. 2020.
The story of the revival of historic downtowns across the US is inextricably tied to Mary Means. In her role as Field Director for the National Trust for Historic Preservation covering the vast Midwest region of 10 states, she recognized how demolition would erase Main Street from the map unless action was taken. What followed was the mass mobilization of people and resources to help Main Street return to the central role it had once played in American life. Her recent book Main Street’s Comeback: And How it Can Come Back Again recounts the start of this movement and the intense relevance Main Street America has today in responding to conditions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
To set the scene – many American cities and small towns were falling apart by the middle of the second half of the 20th century. Deferred maintenance and scarcity of capital during the Great Depression and World War II had taken their toll. Look at the photos from the period and most places around the time of the nation’s Bicentennial in 1976 could best be summed up with three words: drab, dingy, and dispirited. Americans lost confidence in Main Street as a central part of their lives.
The Federal government in the post-war period fueled a retreat from Main Street through highway construction, underwriting of mortgages that drove people to the suburbs, and urban renewal or “urban removal” that erased wide swaths of many cities and towns. In this challenging environment the Main Street Approach was born out of recognition that countless buildings in historic downtowns risked being lost.
Means with Midwestern leaders in historic preservation reviewing applications submitted from 12 states to the Bird & Son, Inc. National Historic Grant Program. Pictured are Paul E. Sprague, Ronald Ramsey, Mary C. Means, and Adrian D. Anderson. (From Dixon Evening Telegraph, May 17, 1975, p. 6).
A team of innovators from the National Trust for Historic Preservation that Means led started a pilot project in three Midwestern communities with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Referring to this period, Means recalled: “It was an exhilarating time. All the participants knew they were taking part in an important experiment.” There was no guarantee of success or a long future, only an opportunity to try, test, and experiment an idea that might break through the malaise many downtowns faced in the 1970s.
Over three years between 1976 and 1979, best practices were discovered and distilled. One of the unique features of this time was nearly daily communication between the Main Street managers in Galesburg, Illinois; Madison, Indiana; and Hot Springs, South Dakota. This would lay the groundwork for co-production of knowledge that came to define the Main Street movement. Newspapers also played a crucial role in pushing the Main Street story out and building awareness of the growing movement. The only way to grow a national movement from the ground-up was through grassroots organization and direct communication between people about what mattered to them and for their communities.
After gathering the lessons learned, training materials were prepared for other communities to follow and the Main Street Approach was born. Like any great idea, the beauty of the Main Street Approach is in its simplicity. The basic idea is there are four points communities need to focus on to help them turnaround their downtown: Design, Promotion, Economic Vitality, and Organization. Less apparent are how these four points correspond with the four elements of real estate value: physical, social, economic, and civic. The downward trajectory of failing downtowns could be stopped and reversed if community members, local government, property owners, and businesses focused on the four elements of real estate value – taking action guided by following the Four Point Approach.
Main Street America, over 45 years later, now reaches 1600 communities nationally in 39 states and many major cities. Nevertheless, a persistent need within Main Street has been more funding. In the early year’s communities scraped together what they could so they might afford a full-time manager to lead the local effort. Later, Federal programs like the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) brought some resources to Main Street. States innovated too like Governor Steve Bullock in Montana who directed significant economic development dollars to Main Street communities.
Nothing could prepare communities for what they encountered in March 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic presented an existential threat to survival of downtowns and the small businesses that gravitated to these revitalizing places. The critical ingredient to success as the first “Main Street Project” communities learned is to have an ongoing program in place. Main Street programs instantaneously pivoted and set up curbside pickup, loosened regulatory rules for outside dining, and came up with clever promotions to continue support of small businesses. These communities, because they were organized, understood the crucial need and acted to support restaurants, cafes, and specialty shops.
Means makes a call for $100 million of Federal funding for the operations of the National Main Street Center and Main Street programs in 39 states, repeating the message from Patrice Frey, CEO of Main Street America. Also, such an investment would be far different than the large-scale urban renewal and transportation projects that were so destructive decades ago. Hopefully policy makers and their constituents take the opportunity of this moment seriously given the multi-decade track record of success Main Street America has had revitalizing communities of all sizes throughout the United States. No existing network other than Main Street America is better suited to mobilize and support small businesses and ensure community vitality at this critical moment.
Thanks are due to Mary Means and many others at the start of the Main Street movement who looked to the future not with despair, foreboding, and indecisiveness; but rather with courage, confidence, and optimism that Americans could do better for themselves and their communities. Today the results are clear. Main Street has regained its role as the center of American civic, social, economic, and cultural life. While the whole world seemed to be pulling against Main Street over 45 years ago, today Main Street communities are on the leading edge of change. Here is to hope that the challenges of the past year are a temporary disruption in a multi-decade return of Americans to Main Street. That is an ending to this story decades in the making that would make the work of Mary Means and countless innovators that followed her worthwhile.
Photo credit: “Historic Preservation Outstripping Expertise,” The Kansas City Times (Kansas City, Missouri), February 24, 1976, p. 6.
Photo credit: “Historic preservation grants create task,” Dixon Evening Telegraph (Dixon, Illinois), May 17, 1975, p. 6.