Can Main Street be saved? Current trends and outlooks show a glimmer of hope

By: 
DEB HILL
Managing Editor
A couple walks down Main Street Thursday past windows of vacant storefronts.

Every Main Street in every town once served as the primary commercial hub of a community, home to post offices, banks, the library, government offices, movie theaters, restaurants, and a variety of ground floor retailers.

But decades of competing trends have changed things drastically. The factors at play are detailed in Richard Davies’ book, “Main Street Blues, the Decline of Small Town America.”

Reaching all the way back to the development of the automobile, Davies catalogs trends through the decades, among them the post WWII move from downtown to suburbia made easier by cars and subdivisions, a “brain drain” as younger community members leave small towns for college and careers, and the ongoing perception that small town life is not as stimulating and has fewer opportunities than does life in the big city.

Trending up?

Tash Weismiller, coordinator of the Montana Main Street program, said Lewistown is not alone in its struggles to maintain a viable downtown.

“This is a problem for almost all communities in the western U.S.,” Weismiller said. “There have been major demographic shifts, both in where people choose to live as well as how they shop.”

However, Weismiller suggests demographic shifts may be turning slightly away from the old model in which young people leave town to pursue an education and don’t return. Weismiller points to statistics showing Montana number one in business development and startups, saying many of these businesses are opening in small towns. The Red Ants Pants company in White Sulphur Springs is one example Weismiller cites.

“People are changing how they select a community to settle in,” Weismiller said. “Many now look first at where they would like to live and raise a family, then they bring their work and ideas with them. They are moving to smaller communities where they feel safe and where they want to raise their kids.”

Changing mindsets

But changing demographics alone won’t save Main Street – changing consumer behavior also can’t be overlooked, according to Matt Wagner, vice president of revitalization at the National Main Street Center. Wagner, whose home base is in Chicago, Illinois, spends much of his time on the road, traveling across the country to assist communities with downtown core revitalization.

“Today Big Box retail and cybershopping mean there is much more competition for the retailer,” Wagner said. “This has caused small businesses to rethink how to do business, and caused communities to rethink downtown business districts in terms of new market forces. There are more specialized retailers than ever before, and more value-added services, such as offering free deliveries.

“It’s about positioning, about being proactive. You need to assess what works – business hours may need to change because people shop on the weekends and in the evening now. Creating second floor housing opportunities is a trend that’s booming and puts a supply of customers right downtown, because that’s where they live,” he added.

Wagner thinks Duluth, Minnesota is a good model.

“It’s booming because they created a downtown where people wanted to live, and businesses and companies followed the people,” he said. “So much of where people want to visit or live is about a healthy downtown. You need to make the heart of the community a priority.”

Is the Main Street program the answer?

Both Weismiller and Wagner point to the Main Street program’s four-point approach as one key ingredient in the turnaround for many small communities. The four points for revitalization include Organization, Promotion, Design and Economic Development. (Lewistown has been an affiliate of the Montana Main Street Program since 2010.)

“For communities in our Main Street program, we bring in one-on-one technical assistance, resources, planners and experts,” Wagner explained. “We look at community building as well. There’s no one right answer that works for every community, and it takes more than just holding a festival to revitalize a downtown.”

Weismiller points to Montana communities such as Anaconda and Thompson Falls as examples of how the Main Street program works -- both towns recently received grant funding through the Montana Main Street program to assist with revitalizing their downtown districts.

Another example of how well the Main Street program works can be found in Stevensville, Montana, a town of just under 2,000. Stevensville resident Victoria Howell, a director on the town’s Main Street program board, said results were almost immediate once the community decided to use the Main Street program.

“I think it was critical,” Howell said. “Our downtown is one street three blocks long – not nearly as big as Lewistown’s downtown. We were struggling. There were empty storefronts, declining use of downtown and we couldn’t agree on what to do to fix it.”

That all changed in 2000 when the town’s merchant group heard a Main Street program presentation.

“We decided to give it a try, formed a steering committee and for about a year we presented around the community about the Main Street program, what it is,” Howell recalled. “Community buy-in was really good. We asked the city to fund the program with a start-up budget of $5,000 a year for three years, to get it established.”

Howell added that the steering committee became the Stevensville Main Street board of directors and a paid executive director was hired to run the program.

“This made such a difference,” Howell said. “You can’t do it with just volunteers; people running businesses don’t have time.”

With the exception of two years out of the 16 it’s been running, the town council has funded the program ever since. State and local funding, grants and money earned from community events, when added to the city’s contribution, provide the $50,000+ annual budget.”

“Stevensville’s program is certified at both the state and the national level,” Howell said. “It’s a lot of work to get certified but it’s worth it. We also strictly followed the four-point approach.

“It sounds boring but it works,” Howell added, pointing to Stevensville’s First Friday events and Scarecrow Festival, which have been drawing crowds to downtown for 15 years.

“On the First Friday, all the stores stay open late, we have music and serve wine and food in the businesses,” she said. “It’s been very successful. The Scarecrow Festival brings thousands to town. Trying to get people to shop here is difficult when you don’t have much retail. These events create interest and bring people in.”

 

Alternative options

While the Main Street program has worked well for some communities, it isn’t the only way to revitalize an aging downtown, at least not according to Tim Weamer of Red Lodge. Weamer serves as co-executive director of the Red Lodge Chamber of Commerce, along with his wife. While Red Lodge is an affiliate member of the Montana Main Street Program, Weamer credits additional work by the community with helping revitalize the community’s core.

“Red Lodge has the same problems as many small towns,” Weamer said. “While we have had a fairly stable Main Street, we have had spaces open up. Mostly the vacancies have been due to retirement of the store owners, but we’ve really worked to try and get those filled.”

Weamer said Red Lodge, a town of just over 2,100 people, has made an effort to attract tourists and visitors from elsewhere.

“You are not going to have a lively downtown just based on locals alone,” he said. “And you cannot force people to shop locally – Amazon is too easy. You have to attract outsiders to come.”

With Billings just about an hour drive away, Weamer said the focus has been on giving Billings residents a reason to make the trip.

“Rather than tell our residents not to leave town to shop, we focus on the 100,000 people in Billings and ask ‘why aren’t they shopping here?’ We work social media, we work with the Billings Gazette and the television stations, and promote Red Lodge as a place to get away from it all. We branded our community as the ‘base camp for the Beartooths.’”

Red Lodge residents passed a resort tax, collected on tourist lodging, dining and some tourism-oriented retail, in order to help fund the town’s marketing efforts.

“Red Lodge used to isolate itself from the rest of the state, but now we work closely with the media and our tourism regional board. Tourists are coming in and spending money, and the visitor center phone is ringing off the hook,” Weamer said.

But tourism is not the end goal.

“We are using tourism as an economic development strategy, but not everyone wants to live in a tourist town,” Weamer emphasized. “We refined our message and we try to target those people who would want to live here, not just visit. We try to attract people to the community who will add to our success.”

Weamer said the Red Lodge marketing is specifically targeted at groups who fit well with the existing community.

“We aim east to Minnesota – they’re nice folks and they appreciate mountains,” he quipped.

Motorcyclists are also a preferred audience, as the Beartooth Highway is well-known as a spectacularly scenic cycle ride.

“It’s all in the message,” Weamer said. “You have to have a clear idea of who the customer is and how to reach them. Most people come for the idea of outdoor activity, whether they do it or not. Getting people to stay is a little more difficult, but we do see people come for a short visit and end up moving here.”

While tourism has helped keep town businesses healthy and brought new residents to the community, Weamer said there are still challenges.

“There’s a big vacant building that was a nice restaurant, the bakery is empty and the bookstore closed,” Weamer said. “You are not going to turn the tide away from chain stores in one small town. Change is happening and we need to embrace the direction everything is going and figure out how to work with it. Our Chamber has become the champion of the new way, not by telling people their way is wrong, but by saying why the new approach is right.”

 

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