Thursday, May 26, 2011

Main Street Day Four --- the Conclusion

Well, this is the end of reporting from the National Main Streets Conference, which ended early yesterday afternoon. I've been doubling up, since part of the goal was to send out e-mail updates to others interested in the conference but unable to attend. Those updates, modified, ended up here.

While I've been running back and forth, the grass kept growing and now looks knee-high --- well not quite. But it has to be clipped soon. And it's been raining the last couple of days! River and creek bottoms flooded, drowning emerging row crops. The house is more of a mess than usual. And then there are two meetings at roughly the same time this morning, for one of which I've not done my homework. Awkward.

Driving south early yesterday afternoon, the urge for an old-fashioned Iowa Maid Rite with fries on the side developed into a compulsion, so I tracked down the Indianola Maid Rite in its new location. Actually, it's clearly visible along the east side of Highway 65 in a tiny new strip mall perched above the WalMart parking lot. Getting there is another matter.

The four-lane street was extremely busy traffic-wise and in order to get into the mini-mall's drive when southbound it was necessary to cross traffic. That wasn't working, so  I finally drove around the block and approached from the south. Exiting the parking lot wasn't easy either. To avoid blocking the drive while waiting to cross traffic, tt was necessary to do so northbound, turn off through the WalMart lot and circle back up to an intersection with traffic lights in order to head south again.

The Maid Rites were wonderful. I had two, actually, since they're small. You've gotta hope that there are enough loyalists out there willing to embark on  the traffic adventure of getting there to keep the place in business.


The somewhat peculiar sight of roughly 1,000 people seated in a large room wearing bright red Maryland crab hats complete with protruding eyes and antennae concluded this week’s conference Wednesday at the Polk County Convention Complex --- the smallest and second-oldest Iowa Events Center building. Veterans Auditorium, still under renovation, is the oldest; the adjacent Wells Fargo Arena and HyVee Hall, much newer.

The hats were gifts from the Main Street Baltimore staff, two of whom took to the stage dressed as crabs, to make a case for attending next year’s conference in Baltimore. It was a wonderful week, but Maryland seems an unlikely destination, even though I spent a lot of time there while in the military and wouldn't mind visiting it again.

Wednesday began with another general session, this one entitled “Overcoming Challenges to Growing Your Organization.” Three specific points were discussed --- positioning, volunteers and fund-raising.

Jeanine Rann, executive director of Downtown Lee’s Summit (Missouri) Main Street, tackled positioning, that is moving a fledgling Main Street program into position for the long haul. Of utmost importance, she said, was working hard to develop a master plan and then sticking to it.

Rann, a University of Northern Iowa graduate who has managed three Main Street programs in cities of varying sizes, said that she has found both the issues and the personalities roughly the same no matter what the size of the community.

She also stressed the importance of branding --- developing an accurate, meaningful and lively Main Street identity and then exploiting it fully.

Christina Sheppard-Decius, of the Ferndale (Michigan) Downtown Development Authority, discussed volunteerism, but prefaced that with a brief discussion of her city’s entry into the Main Street program.

The first problem, she said of a community with 30 percent main street vacancy in 2000 (less than 5 percent now), was the Development Authority board, appointed by the mayor, which included members who had served as long as 30 years. Integrating the detailed and proven Main Street structure and philosophy proved to be the solution in the Detroit “ring” city of 19,000, she said.

Once her community decided to apply to Main Street it was turned down initially --- because it was not ready, she said. The base-building strategy that followed included behaving as if Ferndale were moving toward becoming a Main Street community, integrating its principles whenever possible. That contributed to the success of the next application.

The stakes in a Main Streets application are pretty high --- up to $100,000 in subsidized consultation and training for startups and tens of thousands of dollars in aid and consulting fees thereafter plus eligibility for grant and loan programs accessible primarily through Main Street.

Main Street is “all about volunteering,” she said, adding that program success is dependent on “reigniting and growing the volunteer base.” That involves actively seeking and proactive management. Among her strategies:

Development leaders must really know who lives in their city, embrace diversity and reach out, she said (Ferndale determined that many of its residents worked elsewhere in the Detroit metro area, that it had a substantial LGBT community and that a considerable ethnic/racial minority, not all of whom lived in Ferndale, considered it their home city for shopping and business purposes).

All had a stake in the community, she said, and were potential volunteers.

She suggested that non-traditional volunteers sources be explored --- unemployed, under-employed and voluntarily employed otherwise boomers --- and most certainly students.

Volunteer programs should be managed in a business-like manner, task-oriented and geared toward 24/7 operations, so that volunteers available in non-traditional times and places also may be utilized. And all should know at all times that they are appreciated.

Doris Tillman, of Main Street Fort Pierce (Florida), discussed fund-raising, noting that her organization began with an annual budget of $60,000, now has an annual budget of $478,000 and has leveraged $15 million in community restoration projects.

All sorts of fund-raising activities work, Tillman said, but imagination is required. She, too, stressed the potential for involving students. The money is out there, “I guarantee it,” Tillman said.

She also stressed the importance of major donors, encouraging fund-raisers to always keep part of their focus on people who have an active “interest in what you’re doing.” She cited several Fort Pierce examples when formidable fund-raising goals were reached after well-publicized projects captured the imagination of major donors --- some anonymous. In some cases, she said, you will know who potential major donors are; in other cases, you won't. But always behave as if they're out there because they are.


Later in the morning, I attended Molly Myers Nauman’s lively and entertaining presentation, “What Makes that Building Special? Learning How to ‘Read’ the Buildings along Main Street.” Assigned a smaller room in anticipation of a smaller crowd, she packed the house and was in fine typically Molly form.

Molly’s basic point was that any preservation-related program needs to involve as many people as possible who can speak knowledgeably about their city’s buildings. That is especially important, she said, to avoid situations where historic buildings become threatened in part because too few people are aware of  their significance, architectural and otherwise.

Her slide presentation was focused on helping audience members recognize the architectural styles (from colonial to 1950s) and architectural elements that make a building recognizable, say, as Italianate as opposed to Queen Anne.

The thought that occurred to me while enjoying all of us was that it wouldn’t take that much effort to come up with a similar presentation of our own devoted specifically to Chariton’s square. Then we could take our show on the road.


Stephanie Meeks, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation (Main Street’s parent organization) was principal speaker during the closing plenary session that began shortly after noon, touching on three areas of joint National Trust/Main Street concern. Meeks will be in Cedar Rapids later this week to visit Brucemore, Iowa’s National Trust property.

Increased accessibility, Meeks said, is of primary National Trust concern now as it works to broaden preservation’s grass-roots base and tell everyone's (with emphasis on "everyone's") history.

She noted projections that by 2025 the U.S. majority will be multi-ethnic and noted the increasing Hispanic presence in Iowa and elsewhere. “We need to make sure that we’re telling the whole story,” Meeks said.

This year’s Main Streets Conference, for the first time, included a series of targeted afternoon sessions entitled “La Conversacion: Engaging Latinos and Hispanics on Main Street.”

Visibility is another concern, according to Meeks. She noted that preservation sometimes is perceived as a series of “don’ts.”

Preservation, however, “is not about ‘no change,’ “ Meeks said, rather about “adaptive reuse; about the power of preservation to improve quality of life, enhance economies and broaden tax bases.”

Main Street is “very much about the present and the now,” Meeks said.

As a hopeful trend she noted surveys that have isolated a large segment of the U.S. population, younger, often ethnic, often diverse in other ways, who don’t consider themselves “preservationists,” but who have all the characteristics, including participation in at least seven preservation-related activities during a normal year.

Finally, Meeks touched on funding for Main Street programs. It’s important to recognize, she said, that in a time of economic struggle and city, state and  federal budget cuts that Main Street is not part of the problem --- ‘ it’s part of the solution.”


For me at least, merely a Main Street tourist, the most rewarding part of this week’s conference was to be engaged for several days running with a broadly-based, diverse, nation-wide community of upbeat people universally enthusiastic about the future of smaller communities, their economies and their town centers.

That degree of enthusiastic optimism seems rare these days. We've gotten highly skilled at picking apart what's percetived as wrong, but not very good at working collectively on solutions when something really is.

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