Friday, February 10, 2006

Whatever Happened To "Operation Downtown?"

"Main Street," A Bygone Era Of Restoration Or A New Opportunity To Rebuild?

Operation Downtown is -- or should we say was -- a Main Street revitalization program, part of a nationwide network begun by the National Trust for Historic Preservation to support and enhance America's small towns.

Back in the day, Nassau County was chiefly responsible for administering funds and implementing programs under the auspices of Operation Downtown -- an initiative, in its heyday, that proved little more than a puny attempt at facade improvement, and in its waning years, during the final days of the Gulotta administration, petered out with not so much as a whimper.

The National Trust continues to lead the preservation-based commercial district revitalization movement with its innovative Main Street Four-Point Approach™. This comprehensive, volunteer-based methodology has a 25-year track record of restoring life and commerce back to traditional downtowns and urban neighborhoods.

In it's analysis of commercial district revitalization, the National Trust discusses its Four Point Approach, both in terms of methodology and application.

The Main Street Approach is a community-driven, comprehensive methodology used to revitalize older, traditional business districts throughout the United States. It is a common-sense way to address the variety of issues and problems that face traditional business districts. The underlying premise of the Main Street approach is to encourage economic development within the context of historic preservation in ways appropriate to today's marketplace. The Main Street Approach advocates a return to community self-reliance, local empowerment, and the rebuilding of traditional commercial districts based on their unique assets: distinctive architecture, a pedestrian-friendly environment, personal service, local ownership, and a sense of community.

The Main Street Four-Point Approach™ is a comprehensive strategy that is tailored to meet local needs and opportunities. It encompasses work in four distinct areas — Design, Economic Restructuring, Promotion, and Organization — that are combined to address all of the commercial district's needs. The philosophy and the Eight Guiding Principles behind this methodology make it an effective tool for community-based, grassroots revitalization efforts. The Main Street approach has been successful in communities of all sizes, both rural and urban.

The Main Street approach is incremental; it is not designed to produce immediate change. Because they often fail to address the underlying causes of commercial district decline, expensive improvements, such as pedestrian malls or sports arenas, do not always generate the desired economic results. In order to succeed, a long-term revitalization effort requires careful attention to every aspect of downtown — a process that takes time and requires leadership and local capacity building.

Operation Downtown has, in many respects, given birth to the Main Street approach, and even though it would appear that this initiative has, for all intents and purposes, passed Nassau's hamlets, villages, and unincorporated Main Streets by, perhaps this program -- under the rubric of economic development or facade enhancement -- is worth a closer look.

The good folks at the National Trust ask, "Is The Main Street Approach Right For You?"

How do you know if Main Street is right for your downtown or neighborhood business district or if your community is ready to take on Main Street? You'll first need the right attitude toward revitalization and some nuts-and-bolts ingredients in order to make the program successful.

Consider the following.

1. Is your commercial district a traditional business district? While any commercial district could achieve success using the Four Points, Main Street is intended for traditional business districts. You should have a good concentration of older or historic buildings remaining to give yourself a base of structures to work with. Newer, low density automobile-oriented commercial developments, strip shopping centers, or enclosed shopping malls may want to borrow techniques from the Main Street Approach, but they really aren't appropriate for consideration as a Main Street district.

2. Do you have a decent concentration of businesses remaining in your commercial district? You're much more likely to have success with Main Street if you have a core of businesses remaining in your commercial district. This gives you an economic base on which to build. While it's not impossible to revive a completely vacant commercial district, it is considerably harder to attract investment to such a district.

3. Are you committed to addressing Main Street's revitalization in a comprehensive and incremental way? To be successful, stakeholders need to understand and be committed to the importance of working simultaneously in each of Main Street's Four Points. The community also needs to understand that the program achieves success incrementally, and that initially making smaller changes in the commercial district will lead to larger achievements and more sophisticated projects over time.

4. Do you have a broad base of support for a local Main Street program? You need a balance of public and private participants -- and funding -- in order to make the program succeed. That means that in addition to the traditional participants in Main Street revitalization -- business and property owners and city officials -- non-traditional participants need to be engaged in the revitalization effort, too. Will you be able to pull in residents, civic associations, schools and other institutions, banks, utilities, media, and more to help with the program? It is absolutely essential that your Main Street program be as inclusive as possible with a broad and varied cross-section of the community committed to assisting and supporting the program.

5. Can participants agree? The first hurdle is agreeing whether or not to pursue a Main Street program. Beyond that, participants also need to be willing to discuss and come to agreement about a myriad of issues and projects that affect the commercial district. To be successful, local stakeholders must believe in the value of a consensus-driven program and reject the traditional notion that one or two people should call all the shots on Main Street. While this requires good processes and sometimes lengthy discussions to reach agreement, the result is a lasting and positive change on Main Street that the entire community feels good about.

6. Do you have adequate human and financial resources to implement a successful Main Street program? Average local program budgets vary, but you'll have to be able to raise money for Main Street's operation and for revitalization projects. Similarly, you'll need the ability to recruit and retain staff and volunteers who are interested in Main Street revitalization projects. It's not unusual for a local Main Street program to have 40-60 active volunteers among its board, committees, and projects. (Fortunately, implementing Main Street's Four Points leads to lots of diverse activities that can attract a variety of individuals.) For staffing, you'll need to have the resources to hire and retain an executive director for the program to assist with revitalization efforts. In smaller communities/commercial district, a part-time director is an option; larger cities/districts will need full-time staff, if not multiple staff to coordinate Main Street's efforts.

7. Does your community value historic preservation? Retaining and reusing your commercial district's existing building is an important cornerstone of the program. Local stakeholders need to be receptive to "recycling" existing businesses for new economic uses and to being respectful of the traditional architecture and overall character of the traditional business district.

The National Trust concludes this exploratory by saying, "If you can answer 'yes' to each of these questions, then you're likely to have great success with the Main Street Approach and you should proceed with creating your own local program, and visit the Getting Started section" of the organization's website.

Clearly, the revitalization of "downtown" and the rebirth of "Main Street" are no simple -- or inexpensive -- undertakings. The commitment -- of time, manpower, energy, wherewithal, and money (not to mention the meshing of community activism with the proactive involvement of State, County and local government) -- can be daunting, if not overwhelming.

Still, with the creation of Nassau County's first Empire Zone, and the stated willingness of State, County, and, yes, even Town officials to work together in rebuilding our commercial centers, it could be that there is now the impetus to "get started" in earnest.

What is needed, too -- and perhaps more than anything else at this point -- is that "push" from community advocates to set the wheels in motion.
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SEE also, The New Suburbanism
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As Seen On TV
HGTV's Restore America

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