Monday, May 23, 2011

Grow Main Street: Day One

Four of us from Chariton were in Des Moines on Sunday for the first day of this year's National Main Streets Conference, a gathering of roughly 1,300 delegates from Maine to California involved in or interested in this National Trust for Historic Preservation nationwide project focused on revitalizing the cores of small cities and, thereby, the communities themselves.

Chariton is not among Iowa's more than 40 Main Street cities --- ranging from tiny and historic Bonaparte in Van Buren County to larger communities like Dubuque, Ottumwa, Cedar Falls, Mason City and West Des Moines. A majority of the Main Street cities in Iowa, however, are comparable to Chariton.

A Main Street application is in the initial stage of consideration here, although there are no guarantees --- money, a high level of commitment and broad-based community and business support all are required before a program can fly. So the goal this week, since the conference is in our back yard, is to gather as much information as possible about Main Street and bring it home to share and think more about.

If Chariton were to become a Main Street community, the center of attention would be the Square --- rimmed with fine old buildings around a classic Iowa courthouse, but gradually fading despite tremendous efforts over the years to hold it together. Perhaps Main Street, with an established track record and incredible resources, is the fresh approach it needs.

One of the difficulties involved in all towns of Chariton's size is that despite general recognition that "main street" is the heart of the community, many perceive that keeping it vital is someone else's problem or a problem without a solution. 

Main Street uses a four-point approach --- economic restructuring/business improvement, design, organization and promotion --- to address the situation. Preservation --- beginning with existing assets architectural and otherwise --- is part of the foundation; building awareness that everyone who lives in, owns property in, works in and/or considers a town "home" is a stakeholder in its heart and core identity, one of the major challenges.

Sunday involved eight solid hours of introduction to the program, designed primarily for newer Main Street communities and those of us interested in Main Street. I'm headed back today for the morning plenary session at Civic Center of Greater Des Moines and two afternoon workshops.

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