The main street process is a known method for revitalization using promotion, organization, economic restructuring and promotion. The four points, when implemented correctly, provide a powerful revitalization process that has provided results in small communities all across the country.
Until a few years ago, the Commonwealth had a formal Main Street program that provided money for communities to hire a Main Street Manger. The current administration, facing budget constraints ended the administrative funding. They phased out the funding for the manager with existing programs continuing their grants but no new communities were added.
The previous administrations had provided so many communities with main street funding, that they ran out of communities to give administrative funding. Communities were getting additional funding because the program went from a three-year to a five-year program. All the existing communities or communities that have had programs, went back and signed up for two more years. Some programs even got five more years at one point.
Communities seemed not to understand that they were responsible for the revitalization program when the grant funding was over. I was in a couple of communities that took the “five years and out” strategy. This kind of cavalier use of grant funds for five years and then no funding came under increased scrutiny by the commonwealth.
Most of the other state programs never offered direct administrative grants, and seemed to survive well using business improvement districts or business district authorities. To allow for administrative funds, the laws in the commonwealth were changed. I remember the effort to allow business improvement districts was opposed by conservative business groups, saying that it was another tax on business and they opposed all taxes, even if it was a voluntary assessment.
Some communities were progressive, like Pottstown, and created authorities and were able to fund a manager. Other communities adopted a conservative approach, and did not want to create another tax. Eventually the practice became more mainstream, and communities like West Chester adopted the Business Improvement District model.
The current Keystone Communities model is laden with administrative requirements for record keeping, and does not carry the administrative funding option. The program spells out an opportunity to create a part time, 65 percent manager, through the code enforcement officer or another borough official who has to be part of a five-year funding plan. I do not find this program particularly effective, but at least it is something.
This issue remains, that with all of the upheaval in commonwealth funding, the need to have someone direct the revitalization effort is critical. I have sat back and watched as the main street managers leave a town do to funding issues. The result of not having a full time main street manager to lead a downtown revitalization is never good. There are public officials who try to step in, and of course, the obligatory actions of a borough or a city manager, but it is never the same.
The problem arises when novices try to blend the four points (promotion, economic restructuring, design and organization). There is a need to devote much more time to the effort than they are able to allot in their day. Much of the time, the work of a merchant in the downtown is concentrated during the day when others are working at their real job. Not that the people are not talented enough, but the time constraints and the availability of the person to be involved is a limiting factor.
The commonwealth should have considered that when they devised the Keystone Community program. I am not sure that code enforcement and promotion carries enough of the same attributes to be successful. Many times the main street manager needs to be an advocate for the business community, and it has always be argued by commonwealth DCED (Department of Community and Economic Development) officials, since the inception of the program, that the government worker should not be the main street manager. I remember when I worked on the assessment of the Norristown Main Street effort that the one central message that was given to the planning department was to let the main street manager work for a business group and not the borough.
Times change and tight financial times dictate changes in programmatic implementation of government incentives. It does not change the interpersonal dynamic that makes programs successful. It brings to the forefront the commitment of the business community to the program. The government dollars were an incentive to securing a long-term strategy. Many of the towns took it as a “five years and out” strategy, and that was the basis of the change in the program.
One of the communities in which I worked, Downingtown, recently combined the main street with the chamber of commerce after many years of going without a main street manager. In fact, they did a three years and out after there was a dispute with a DCED regional representative over the nature of funding for borough projects. I was able to raise enough money through fundraising and as the Keystone Opportunity Zone coordinator to keep the project alive long after I had left to be the Director of the South Street Headhouse District. Eventually the program ended when the main street manager they appointed ran through the money and there were little or no avenues available to continue the program.
A shining star in the funding mechanism has been Pottstown that has continued the business improvement district for many years. There have been a series of managers and many have made significant contribution to the project.
Barry Cassidy is a freelance grant and economic development consultant. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.