Lessons Learned on Main Street
Revitalization never crossed my mind as any sort of career aspiration as a child, city planner didn’t quite have the same appeal as being the next Bo Jackson. The concept of where you lived and the role it played in your life was not something we talked about at the dinner table. We could ride our bikes to the neighbors or “Muck Lake” as we called it, but everything else required a car, including school. My childhood in Lima, Ohio seemed pretty groovy, so I assumed it was the same for most. When they let me out of school at 18, I moved on down the road to central Ohio, yet college didn’t necessarily provide me with any different opinions on the matter of place either. My school was in a nice Midwest town, that at the time had a struggling downtown, but it didn’t concern me much. Like most, the setting of my life, didn't really enter into my consciousness in terms of the role it played in shaping of my life.
I was fortunate enough to move around the country a bit after college and experience life in a variety of settings. I spent a couple of years in Livingston, Montana where I learned the beauty of small town life and the joy of knowing all your neighbors- along with nearly everyone in town. Even when I lived in the valley, where houses were miles apart from one another, ranch families all knew and depended on one another and shared in a robust sense of community. It was an eye-opening experience and something I never knew I was missing growing up in suburbia.
A year later I was living in Fort Greene, Brooklyn- a pretty significant departure from Montana in nearly every way. Oddly enough, the one thing that I found to be the same was the sense of community. Livingston and Fort Greene could not be more different, but somehow they were the same in one very important way. People knew one another and looked out for one another. Whether it was families from the valley showing up to help wrangle up the cows or someone on my first day at the bodega letting me know that “Socks Man” might have seemed threatening, but was just a harmless local dealing with some mental issues. From one side of the country to the other, I was beginning to feel what it was like to be a part of something- to be a part of someWHERE. The connectivity and sense of togetherness I experienced in both places was something that was never part of my life growing up in the suburbs. It sparked an interest in me which I still haven’t shaken to this day- an interest in how the places we live affect our lives and why by improving the places, we can improve peoples’ lives.
So thus began my in career in urban revitalization. I completed my master’s in urban and regional planning in Virginia while working for a historic tax credit developer. I loved adaptive reuse real estate development and the way it could transform a block and neighborhood. I thought I had found my calling until my favorite professor, John Accordino, introduced us to the concept of Main Street. He taught us about an organized methodology to revitalize communities created by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. We learned how this program was having dramatic impacts in cities that had adopted the approach and how we could utilize their framework in our own careers. While many of my fellow classmates were heading out to be city planners working in government, I knew Main Street was the place for me.
I got a job as the executive director of a newly formed Main Street program at the intersection of Rust Belt and Appalachia, Ohio. I spent two years in the position before accepting a job as the coordinator of the Ohio Main Street Program for Heritage Ohio, a non-profit revitalization and preservation organization based in Columbus. During the nine years I spent overseeing the program, I had a chance to work with communities of every size and type. I worked with large urban neighborhood commercial districts in Cleveland and communities of a couple hundred people in Appalachia and everything in between. The experience of working with hundreds of communities and thousands of passionate civic minded people provided me with a unique vantage point to understand cities and taught me lessons that I continue to incorporate into my work every day. Here are a few of the lessons I learned on Main Street.
Excuses are bullshit. Every single community can find reasons for why they can’t be successful. As Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.” Small cities believe they can’t be successful because they are too small and large cities think they can’t because their problems are too large. THIS community thinks that it can’t revitalize because it doesn’t have a college and THAT one thinks it can’t because the median income is too low. Revitalization success has occurred in every single size and type of community so there is no benchmark as to who can transform their town. EVERY SINGLE COMMUNITY has the resources it needs to be successful. There is not a single community anywhere that doesn’t have people willing to donate time, money and expertise to improve their place, and to say otherwise is to buy into your own lie. Revitalization is a choice. It never ceases to amaze me how often people will tune out good advice as they seek out a reason the information is not applicable to them. Every community can learn from the success of every community because people work the same everywhere. I have heard phenomenal excuses from cities as to why they can’t be successful. “People don’t walk here.” Excuse me…? “People in this town don’t want nice things.” Say what?!? There are a million reasons people cite as to why they can’t turn their community around, but the only honest reason is that revitalization isn’t a priority. If it was a priority, then you would be resourceful.
People are all the same. People in large cities and small towns, poor and wealthy, gay and straight, seasoned townies and newcomers, yuppies and hipsters- they all share the same values, and anyone that tells you different has an agenda. People in every single city I worked in want to feel safe and secure. They want access to employment. They want to raise their kids in a place they can flourish and hopefully find enough opportunity to remain upon graduation. Most importantly, they all want to enjoy a high quality of life. Some struggling towns have grown so discouraged that their citizens have actually convinced themselves that they do not want the same things as people that live in “better” places. It’s frustrating beyond belief when a community’s self esteem drops to this level, because they no longer believe they deserve to succeed. Everyone deserves to love where they live. Everyone wants to love where they live. Know when making decision regarding your community that all of us share the same set of values.
We confuse supply and demand. Just because we don’t have something, doesn’t mean we don’t want it. Just because I don’t have a sweet*ass scooter doesn’t mean I don’t want a sweet*ass scooter. My demand for sweet*ass scooter is very high, but sadly, my supply of sweet*ass scooter is very low. Communities often times convince themselves that since they don’t have something, they don’t want that very thing. This usually takes the form of upper floor housing, nice restaurants, quality retail, coffee shops, wine stores, dog parks, etc. Residents see that they don’t currently have these amenities, so they leap to the conclusion that the town as a whole doesn’t want them. Remember the lesson from above. People all share the same values: there is no town full of people that don’t want MORE. I have yet to find a community where people really just crave subpar amenities.
People are drunk when it comes to parking. For some reason, the average American has it in their head that upon the virtue of their being born, parking should be readily available anywhere they go, at all times. I’d like to believe that I should be able to walk into any bar and find an available barstool at all times, but I don’t go around trying to change city policies and demolish buildings because of it. Parking is simply a utility and one most often provided by tax dollars. We don’t have any expectations that all our internet should be free or that we can have as much electric usage as we want. Yet all parking should be free and at our beck and call? No. No one visits a city for its parking, people rarely do anything based on parking. If you have a district people want to visit, they will find a way to get there. If you have a downtown no one wants to visit, you can be sure parking gets the blame. People visit place for their attractions, not for their parking. I repeat, NO ONE VISITS A PLACE BECAUSE OF PARKING. Typically, to add parking, you have to remove the very things that attract people, buildings full of uses and district’s walkable nature. In adding parking, you are actually taking away the very things people want. While an empty building might not be drawing anyone to your town today, it could be full of activity tomorrow. When we remove a building, we are removing the potential to revitalize. When we add parking, we make a place less walkable. I have spoken with more than a few retailers that would like to have their whole town bulldozed so as to have ample parking for their business. Which brings me to my last lesson.
Merchants don’t know what they are talking about. Okay, some of them do, but many of them don’t. Merchants are often afforded an outsized voice when it comes to efforts and policies to revitalize. I certainly understand as well as anyone that merchants have a vital role to play in the health of a downtown, but this does not mean that they are experts in all facets of Main Street. I have come across many merchants that aren’t even experts in merchanting. There are plenty of retailers that get it. Those that kickass at running their business and also see the big picture. Listen to these people. But here is the thing, these are the people that are most often already doing well and don’t have the need or time to complain. They are busy successfully running their business. It is the business owner that is open 4 (usually inconsistent) hours a week, selling VCRs, parking in front of their own store, that has ALL of the opinions. Good merchants have a business plan, they have regular hours, they consider their customers’ needs and adjust inventory accordingly, they have a marketing budget and they understand that the overall health of the downtown affects the health of their business. They see the big picture and make decisions accordingly. These are the people you want filling your downtown storefronts and you want to solicit advice from. The “hobby” business owners is often not very serious about running a business in the first place and most likely ended up an entrepreneur for reasons other than profit. If they were profit motivated, they would have better hours, consider customer preferences and wash their windows. Bad merchants often end up doing more damage to downtown. They blame others for their struggles and are the biggest perpetrator of the parking myth. They tend to stir up trouble and talk over the more level headed business owners. It can be a tough lesson to learn, but the downfall of many of Main Streets has been providing too much say to a couple of negative shop owners. Everyone has a stake in downtown. It is the heart of the community, so everyone should have a voice and no one group should have a larger say than anyone else.
This is far from a comprehensive list of the lessons I have learned while working on Main Street, but five is about all any of us probably need to read in one sitting. Working in revitalization has afforded me an opportunity to effect changes in communities that can improve peoples’ lives. I am grateful to have the opportunity every day and can’t imagine being as satisfied doing anything else. That being said, there were some hard lessons to learn along the way. The biggest takeaway being that just because something is commonly accepted as truth on Main Street, doesn’t make it true. So much of what we believe to be the case holds us back and keeps communities from realizing real success. We have to be willing to reconsider our beliefs and to seek out actual evidence when making certain decisions regarding downtown. As we come to understand the role place plays in peoples lives, we must realize the cost is too high to continue to make the same mistakes.
*Thank you very much for taking the time to read my blog, if you found the information useful, I do hope you will consider sharing it with your friends and colleagues.
- Jeff Siegler