The Main Street Program goes beyond enhancing the profitability of downtown merchants and property owners, Kent Burnes told his audience at Centennial Hall on Monday night. It's about building a stronger community through private/public partnerships.
"This isn't just for business and property owners," Burnes said. "This is here to leave behind a legacy you'll be able to see for 100 years, and that is an intact downtown."
Burnes is a retailer and consultant working with communities intent on revitalizing their historic downtown districts. He is in town this week to conduct a workshop with the members of the board of directors of Steamboat Springs' Main Street Project. He intends to leave them with a specific plan of action for the next 18 months.
The plan should help guide them to "preserving the character of the community as well as the characters in the community," Burnes quipped.
The Main Street Project has been tested in communities large and small, all over the world, Burnes said. Its establishment was an indirect result of the growth of suburbs in the '50s and '60s. As downtowns eroded, individuals at the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Park Service posed the rhetorical question, "Are downtowns important nationally?"
The two entities sought to answer the question by establishing pilot programs in three cities in 1979. The pilot programs led to the creation in 1981 of the National Main Street Center. Colorado communities embraced the Main Street concept early on, and Durango was among the first cities to put a program into effect.
Main Street programs revolve around four primary committees that set out programs of work in their assigned areas. They include committees on organization, design, promotion and economic restructuring. Organizing committees advocate for the downtown throughout the community and pursue funding. The design committee evaluates and enhances public spaces in the downtown and tackles crucial details such as the adequacy of signage. The preservation of historic structures that define the character of a downtown is an area of significant emphasis. The promotion committee seeks ways to renew interest in the downtown not just as a shopping district, but as the social hub of the community. Finally, the economic restructuring committee seeks to educate business owners about opportunities within the local market.
"It's important to work all four points," Burnes stressed. The power to transform historic downtowns lies in the work of the committees.
Steamboat's downtown commercial district, from Third Street to 13th Street, and from Oak Street to Yampa Street, is relatively healthy, Burnes said. But there also is work to be done.
"Your downtown is very healthy compared to many," Burnes said. "There are downtowns that have literally hit the turning point where it looks like they could be on the brink of extinction. I've seen beautiful downtowns, as nice as downtown Steamboat that have become decimated in a decade."
Main Street Projects also seek to add political, social, "place" and economic values to downtown districts, Burnes said.
"Everyone is looking for areas that are destination attractions," he said. "Small businesses must have value to the customer to be patronized. Everything we do as a Main Street Project has to be about the restoration of value."
Allowing one set of values to slip can feed weakness in the other three, Burnes said. He cited the example of an unnamed Southwestern city where business owners couldn't be persuaded to keep evening hours in spite of research that showed their customers were doing a majority of their shopping at night.
"By the time they realized 85 percent of business was done after 5 p.m., there was a super Wal-Mart, a Big K and a Home Depot," Burnes said. "They plucked their feathers just like little chickens, and they did that in 162 Texas communities."
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