Preservation Magazine, Fall 2017

President's Note: The Strength of Main Street

All over the country, the offices of major American companies such as McDonald’s and General Electric are leaving the suburbs and moving back into urban neighborhoods. In Arkansas, Walmart has invested millions in urbanizing downtown Bentonville, the site of its headquarters. After researching several locations, the German condiment company Develey is opening its first North American manufacturing facility in Dyersburg, Tennessee (population 17,000), which is set to create 150 jobs there.

What do these stories have in common? They all illustrate the fact that authentic and distinctive neighborhood character has become a critical economic asset in the 21st century. To attract today’s workers, businesses are relocating away from staid corporate campuses and back into neighborhoods with a strong sense of place. “I feel like for a while, cookie-cutter [living] was a thing,” one Baltimorean told the Christian Science Monitor. “Now people want a lot more authenticity—in what they wear, in what they eat, in where they live.” Older buildings, as I have noted here before, also provide ample opportunities for entrepreneurship and affordable housing.

As such, one of the best ways for towns and cities to spur economic growth today is by reinvigorating their historic commercial corridors, and putting their character-rich older and historic buildings to work. “In the New Economy, place matters most,” argues Urban Land Institute Fellow Ed McMahon. “In a world where capital is footloose, if you can’t differentiate [your town] from any other place, you will have no competitive advantage.”

How to go about that? A great place to start is our National Main Street Center. For nearly four decades, the local programs that compose the Main Street America network have been making historic downtowns great again in more than 2,000 communities. Through the Main Street Approach, they have revitalized town centers by capitalizing on the distinctive features that make them unique, putting a place’s rich history front and center, and using historic assets to forge a strong foundation for growth.

The strategy has worked wonders at every scale, from small towns like Marion, Virginia, and Mount Vernon, Iowa, to commercial corridors of major cities like the Shaw and H Street neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. In fact, the National Main Street Center has helped communities create more than 584,000 net new jobs, secure more than $70 billion in new investment, and rehabilitate more than 268,000 buildings for community use since 1980.

This fall, to accentuate and build on this great work, the National Trust and American Express launched Partners in Preservation: Main Streets, our 10th year of Partners in Preservation campaigns. It gives local Main Streets across the country an opportunity to compete for $2 million in grant funding, and helps to highlight some of the many revitalization success stories we’re seeing all over America. Because in today’s economy, what’s old is new again: The road to broad prosperity, and a thriving local community, leads right back down Main Street.

Stephanie K. Meeks was the president and CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation from 2010-2018. She is the author of "The Past and Future City."

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