March 14, 2014

What Main Street Can Teach Us About Sustainable Preservation

  • By: National Trust for Historic Preservation
Written by Ric Cochrane, Associate Director of Preservation Green Lab

Lewiston has a long history of a strong local economy, starting with its location on deep-water accessible Snake and Clearwater rivers, allowing its locals to ship timber, grain, and other products to the Pacific Ocean.

I’m from Lewiston, Idaho, the aluminum jet boat capital of the world, entrance to Hell’s Canyon, and home of the Potlatch lumber mill. Twenty years ago, when my mom ran a shop on Lewiston’s Main Street, it was the heart of town -- until Wal-Mart, Costco, and other national franchises moved in and Downtown Lewiston started a long struggle to survive.

Today, thanks to the Beautiful Downtown Lewiston initiative, Main Street is once again alive and on its way to becoming the next designated Main Street within the National Main Street Center network.

I think Downtown Lewiston is going to long outlive the chain stores and franchises. Why? Because the downtown movement is led by people who care about each other and take a long view of prosperity. If I sound like some small-town rube or an idealist, that’s OK. I have evidence to indicate that Main Streets are our future.

Hell's Canyon, the deepest gorge in the United States, is home to Hell's Canyon Dam, which is situated on the Snake River and was completed in 1967.

Most of my time as Associate Director of the Preservation Green Lab is spent running the America Saves! project, a national campaign to deliver energy efficiency to small businesses and building owners in Main Street communities and older urban neighborhoods. Through the Green Lab’s research, we’ve learned that small businesses and owners of small buildings often don’t have time or resources to invest in energy efficiency, even though include saving on operating costs, improving asset value, and creating local jobs.

We think the key to helping Main Streets realize these benefits is aggregation -- grouping together businesses to create economies of scale, and leveraging communities' existing social capital to attract resources and investment. But what makes the entire package work is community members supporting each other, mobilizing participation, and maintaining momentum.

The sustainability movement is taking notice. In November 2013, I traveled to Boston for the annual EcoDistricts Summit, a conference focused on sustainable neighborhood development (reduced energy and water consumption, renewable energy generation, etc.).

Boston played host to the annual EcoDistricts Summit in 2013, which focused on promoting sustainable neighborhood development.

In a marked change from previous Summits, Boston included a large number of community-based organizations (CBOs). Why? Because the ecodistricts movement is realizing that technical resources alone don’t achieve sustainability objectives. People want to be in control of their own communities, and the tools -- governance models, financial tools, and sustainability metrics -- must be in service of the people.

I can’t count the number of people from CBOs who asked me, “Isn’t this the same thing we’ve been doing for years, but with a different label?” Yes, it is. The same could be said about Main Streets.

The inherent strengths of Main Streets are essential to achieving sustainability objectives and realizing the associated economic, social, and environmental benefits. Simultaneously, new sustainability-based tools are available that can help Main Street communities take their efforts to the next level.

I’ll make an example out of one of my favorite organizations showing how it can be done: Main Street Iowa. The Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA) and Main Street Iowa are leading statewide initiatives that support community development, sustainability, and economic performance.

The Main Street Iowa motto is “We Help Communities Achieve Historic Preservation with High Economic Impact,” and their results speak for themselves. In fiscal year 2013, for every dollar appropriated to the Main Street Iowa program, there was a private investment of more than $173. More than 2.5 million volunteer hours have been logged in the almost 30 years since the Iowa program started.

The Iowa Economic Development Authority, founded in 2011 in Des Moines, works with Main Street Iowa to support local economies with an emphasis on sustainability.

The strong foundation of the Main Street network has allowed IEDA to drive energy efficiency initiatives, bringing technical tools and sustainability solutions to communities that are already mobilized. For example, the towns of West Union and Woodbine showcase holistic, sustainable approaches to revitalization, including improved energy performance, district energy, storm water management, building rehabilitation, enhanced public spaces, and upper-story redevelopment.

Main Street Iowa received a $261,000 USDA grant to translate the successes of the demonstrations and conduct 36 “greening your district” site visits, build a sustainability program, and conduct education and training. Woodbine has 45 buildings participating in an energy efficiency program. Nine buildings have already become 30% more energy efficient.

Additionally, IEDA and Main Street Iowa recently received a federal grant to create two Regional Energy Manager positions to work with 20 Main Street Iowa cities to stimulate demand for city-owned building energy efficiency projects. IEDA will work with cities to develop financing options for energy efficiency projects.

Iowa powerfully demonstrates the importance of helping communities determine their own priorities and then providing resources to help people reach their objectives. The tools of historic preservation -- protecting cultural heritage and telling the stories of the people who make places great -- are the foundations of Iowa’s success, and I think are a model for 21st-century preservation everywhere.

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