Sunday, June 1, 2003

City's 'Main Street' key



By Rhonda Abrams
Gannett News Service

Growing up in Los Angeles, I didn't have a "Main Street." We shopped at the mall and drove everywhere, even to buy a carton of milk. In those years, L.A. was unusual; it soon became America's norm.

Can you remember your town's old Main Street? What happened when the mall opened? Then the giant discount superstores? Downtowns slowly withered, and along with them, many small companies died.

Small business does well when downtowns thrive. I'm not just referring to retailers. Lots of companies benefit when pedestrians walk in a healthy downtown - dentists, lawyers, even graphic designers or computer consultants.

Since 1980, the Main Street Program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation has been spearheading a national movement to revitalize America's downtowns. I was recently asked to speak to one of the more than 1,600 local Main Street associations about how to enliven their community.

I stressed that what's needed are the "Three C's" - concept, change and collaboration.

Concept

Every successful enterprise needs a vision. You need a clear sense of what you're trying to achieve. There are two parts to that concept:

• Identity. Every "brand" needs a personality, something consumers relate to. It takes work, time, physical improvements and business development. It helps if you have a historic underpinning - the Main Street I addressed once was a railroad stop and the location of an early movie studio.

• Anchor. What's going to bring pedestrians downtown? Movie theatres, museums, playhouses, restaurants, bookstores (especially with author events) all attract foot traffic. Both sides of the street also have to be visually interesting, with outdoor tables and seating, street trees, banners, perhaps a plaza.

Change

Even people who eagerly hope for a Main Street transformation often fear the inevitable changes. Long-time merchants fear higher rents. Residents fear increased traffic and noise. Indeed, both are likely to come. But what's the alternative?

Without planned growth, there will be no growth. And where there's no growth, there's decay. Eventually, that leads to truly inappropriate development.

Collaboration

When it comes to a downtown area, all boats rise and fall together. I'm surprised at the number of communities where neighborhood associations continually oppose the local merchant groups.

As for me, I've chosen to live in a town with a vibrant Main Street. I live downtown and my office is a pleasant nine-block walk away. Occasionally, I'm aggravated by some people on the street or cars turning around in my driveway. But I love the community feeling.

I'm part of a trend. Americans are tired of the sameness of malls or the isolation of suburbs. They want to live in real communities. To help your downtown become part of this national trend, contact the Main Street Program at www.mainstreet.org.

Rhonda Abrams writes the nation's most widely read small business column and is author of "The Successful Business Plan: Secrets & Strategies" and "The Successful Business Organizer."




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