Economic development is a hot topic in Madison. In fact, the governor just named our fair town “Large Community of the Year” (um, that’s “large” in South Dakota terms—Madison’s population is 6,500!) primarily because of funds raised by the economic development group, “Forward Madison” and work done by the city and local businesspeople to recruit tech graduates from local university DSU.
Cory and I brought our own idea for attracting tourism along with a little economic development to the city commission and city marketing committee last summer. Without giving away all the details here, our idea was for a signature event for the city of Madison. It’s a great idea, if I do say so myself, and it was very well-received by both groups. We couldn’t get a guarantee of any immediate funding for the project, though, so we hope that sometime in the future, we’ll have the time to commit to the fundraising for it.
However, I’ve done more thinking about it lately, and I’ve concluded that before Madison tries to bring in thousands of people for a weekend event, we may need to consider the message we convey to those people when they look around town, in particular, at our downtown area.
I’ve been inspired by my recent online discovery of the mecca of downtown revitalization information: the Main Street Program, administered through the National Trust for Historic Preservation. What is conspicuously missing from our local economic development activities is any talk of revitalizing our downtown. I think this is a critical piece to our local economy. Madison would do well to initiate its own local Main Street Program.
Before I weigh in further on why all of this matters to Madison, here are a few quotes and stats from the information I’ve been poring over (since I really can’t say it any better than these people already have):
Your downtown or traditional commercial district is the most visible indicator of community pride, along with its economic and social health. It is either an asset or a liability in the effort to recruit new residents, new businesses and industries, retirees, tourists, and others to your community and to keep those you already have. Quality of life is what separates successful cities and towns from declining communities in the new millennium. Finally, your downtown or neighborhood commercial district is the visual representation for your community’s heritage. The architecture of your commercial district is a physical expression of your community’s history. The Main Street approach encourages forward-thinking economic development in an historic preservation context so this community asset and legacy can be passed on to future generations. (source)
The underlying premise of the Main Street approach is to encourage economic development within the context of historic preservation in ways appropriate to today’s marketplace. The Main Street Approach advocates a return to community self-reliance, local empowerment, and the rebuilding of traditional commercial districts based on their unique assets: distinctive architecture, a pedestrian-friendly environment, personal service, local ownership, and a sense of community. (source)
One of the dozen reasons they list as why Main Streets are important:
The commercial district is a reflection of community image, pride, prosperity, and level of investment — critical factors in business retention and recruitment efforts. (source)
From MainStreet of Fremont, NE mission statement:
To Improve the quality of life in Fremont by strengthening the Historic Downtown as the center of the Community.MainStreet of Fremont capitalized on the idea that the downtown is the center of community life and more than just a place of commerce. We believe that a revitalized downtown benefits the community because an active downtown is a symbol of community economic health, local quality of life, and pride and community history. The purpose of MainStreet of Fremont, Inc. is to encourage, promote, and support downtown Fremont’s economic vitality as well as the image and appearance of downtown. (source)
From the “Revitalize Geneva Vision Statement” (Geneva, NE):
Downtown businesses flourish and meet the needs of local residents while attracting the tourist who wants a safe, convenient and comfortable place to enjoy the historic trappings of brick streets, appropriate lighting and landscaping. The overall revitalization of the community gives visitors the feeling that this is a place for people who make things happen. (source)
I hope Forward Madison, the city marketing committee, and other like-minded residents will consider initiating South Dakota’s first local Main Street Program. They can count on me to happily volunteer my time to start making that possible.