Can the Main Streets of post-industrial American communities really be revitalized?

Louis Hyman’s recent piece in The New York Times Sunday Review, The Myth of Main Street, presents a bleak choice for rural and rust-belt America: persist in hopeless efforts to rebuild your downtown or graciously accept a future of telecommuting for a distant corporation.

The former he decries as nostalgia; the latter as the only economically viable option. But this offer is a false choice: there is another way for smaller communities to compete in today’s economy and we believe a strong main street strategy is at the heart of it.

It is true that main streets have been battered in recent decades. Big-box and internet retail paired with the globalization of production have exposed communities to unprecedented competition. Sprawling development and migration have emptied out many small downtowns. Yet far from a myth, some main streets are thriving. These communities leverage the density of older and historic buildings, educational institutions and community and cultural facilities in their town centers to attract investment and bring renewed vitality to once hollowed-out downtowns.

One company town learning that lesson is Bentonville, Arkansas, (pop 40,000) home to Wal-Mart, one of the very companies implicated in main street’s demise, and which is now investing in revitalization of the historic downtown as a talent attraction strategy.

In 2009 Dubuque, Iowa, (pop. 58,000) successfully attracted an IBM service center to a historic downtown building, bringing 1300 quality jobs, in part because of that community’s investment in downtown and quality of life for residents.

Downtown housing is essential. Investing in housing helps to retain, and in some cases attract, the old and the young, and it creates more pedestrian traffic to support retail, dining and service storefronts. Towns like Mt. Vernon, Iowa (pop. 4600) have revitalized their downtowns in part by converting upper-stories along Main Street into housing.

Photo of Dubuque, Iowa by Storm Cunningham, taken when he keynoted their
2014 Sustainable Communities conference.

See full Brookings article by Bruce Katz and Patrice Frey.

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