Main Street as an Economic Development Generator

“Back in the day they walked three or four abreast in the downtown on a Saturday night.” That is a familiar quote from residents of a community as they talk about how the downtown has lost favor in the regional marketplace.  Looking at the streets bare and without activity must mean that the town is no longer viable. 

In some cases that is the truth, but in most cases, there are viable businesses in the downtown even though there is not a plethora of foot traffic. Most people are talking about the late 1940s to and throughout the 1950s when automobiles were a little different, and there was not an abundance of sprawl development. A lot of those people’s memories will disappear when they die and we will only have current recollections.

Foot traffic is a good indicator of a revitalized downtown, but having a respectable downtown is the spark plug for other development in the town that could lead to a better situation for the town as a whole. In both Downingtown and Phoenixville, there was massive investment in the housing stock based upon the effort to revitalize the downtown that made both towns better.

In many cases, your downtown defines how your town is perceived. By having a run down central business district, it reflects negatively on the entire town. Most downtowns are not run down, but instead just not revitalized. There are always things that someone can point to as being an impediment. Broken Windows, lack of maintenance and perhaps some undesirable elements are normally the main culprits people will identify. 

In many cases a little hard work and some paint will solve the problem. Let us say that a business wants to move into an area. They are from out of state and they look to the quality of life of the town. There is a little tract of land on the outskirts of town that would be perfect for the company, as it would provide the ability to build to suit and house all of their employees under one roof. Say this firm is from a small town in another state. One of the first things they are going to take into consideration is, what is the quality of life? Where are they asking their employees to relocate?

The first impression about the town is made concerning what the commercial district looks like. If your town is thriving, your town is perceived as a thriving little community with the quaint this or that. If your town is struggling, the impression you make will be dependent of the nature of the struggle, and probably be compared to the town they are relocating from.

The “Main Street” approach to revitalization deals with four points — Promotion, Design, Economic Restructuring and Organization. These points identify the areas that people will look at when they decide to buy a house, locate a company or visit a downtown. A downtown is not just about the customers that it attracts, but stands more of a symbol of what the town represents.

Promotions could include festivals, fairs and gatherings in the downtown as well as promotion of the town as a whole. Design could deal with the looks of the buildings and the historic nature of the town, and organization is the process by which the goals and objectives of the four points are attained.

It is the economic development that is always what people want in the end, after the revitalization process has run its course. In many cases, that cannot be quantified if there has been economic development, because the layperson will never know the opportunities that are missed by the town presenting a poor image.

I remember fielding a phone call after the Republican National Convention was held in Philadelphia. It was an investor looking to invest in Downingtown’s downtown. He said that he was calling because on the way back to Michigan or some place like that, some of his friends decided to look at the landscape of Pennsylvania. Route 30 took them right through downtown Downingtown and it was right after the first phase of streetscape.

The investor told me that when the politicos saw the newly minted streetscape they thought this is a great town to raise a child and others in the group termed it picturesque. He thought if they felt like that, he would come out and visit. He called me, made a visit, and talked about relocating his business to the town. 

We were unable to make it work in terms of space, as I was trying to get him to buy the old mill where Stella Rosa is currently located, and we could not make a deal with the owner. However, whether we made the deal of not, whether it was a missed opportunity or not, the opportunity still existed because of the downtown and the way that the downtown presented itself.

This scenario or a similar scenario has probably been played out in each town in the commonwealth. Your town is judged by your downtown, and it is necessary to keep up appearances no matter what the current foot traffic may be.