Where All The Lights Should Be Bright: Part II

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.

What does the current state of this building say about our community?

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)

And finally, click here and here for stats on the economic impact of Main Street Programs.

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.

Thoughts, anyone?

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About EMH

Thirty-something. South Dakotan. Mother to fiver-year-old K.L. Wife to Cory. Full-time stay-at-home mom. Seminary student. Future ordained ELCA Lutheran minister. Novice organic gardener. Sustainable living aspirer.
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6 Responses to Where All The Lights Should Be Bright: Part II

  1. Joe B in Montrose says:

    You’re right on, Erin! I’ve often wondered why Madison has seemed to forget/ignore it’s downtown potential. There is a sort of “network” forming of South Dakota communities in the Main Street program. The players include at least Brookings, Mitchell, and Yankton. Eric at Planning District III in Yankton (districtiii.org) is heading it up.

    In a former life, I worked with Main Street Sioux Falls for over 6 years–there’s a reason every major city in the US has been working hard on the core of the city for the past decade or so. They realized decay spreads from the center, and vitality does too. SF ignored its downtown for a long time and almost lost it. Now it’s vibrant and fun (I’m taking my wife there tonight for a sidewalk dinner next to a live musician and some sculpture). The Main Street program has proven all over the country that the same is true for small cities too.

    Good luck! We’d love to make the beautiful trip up the Valley Road for our dates sometimes too. Thanks for your blog…

  2. Erin says:

    Thanks for reading and commenting, Joe B! Madison’s downtown does have so much potential. There are some beautiful turn-of-the-century buildings (which I’ll post on soon) that could be such showpieces for the town. I hope they will be one day soon.

    I just caught wind a couple days ago of some South Dakota Main Street activity brewing. Thanks for giving me another lead on it and someone to contact to find out more.

    I completely agree on Sioux Falls’s downtown. It’s exciting to see the changes that have happened over recent years. Cory and I love that area, too—it really is a vibrant place.

    If you and your wife venture up the Valley Road (it indeed is a gorgeous little bit of South Dakota landscape!) anytime soon, we’d love to pick your brain about downtown revitalization. Oh, and the Moonlite Inn (Lake Herman) and Geno’s (Lake Madison) are my recommendations for good local date spots!

  3. twu says:

    Erin~

    I spent my evening in downtown Northfield (MN) this evening and intend to do the same again this evening. In treasuring the great activities happening on our main street, I thought of you and Cory and downtown Madison.

    You see, I think Northfield does multiple simple little things, during the summer especially, that could translate to Madison. An example is what drew me downtown last night. “Taste of Northfield” (modeled after the Taste of Minnesota event up in the Cities, which is perhaps modeled on the Taste of Chicago event in the Windy City) brought to downtown a dozen local restauranteurs, ranging from the family-owned diner to my favorite Indian restaurant to the more corporate (and, I mistakenly assumed, less downtown festival friendly) Perkins and SubWay. Tonight’s activities are sponsored by the bookstore for the release of the new Harry Potter book. Stores will be open late, there will be tons of kids and families wandering through the downtown, and people will be reading!

    It couldn’t be too hard to do something similar in Madison. I would think China Moon and Second Street Diner and maybe even the Hillside or some similar lakeside establishment could do great business with inexpensive picnic fare downtown some Thursday night. Block off a block or two of Egan, throw in the community band and/or some other sort of entertainment (Northfield does a reenactment of the Jesse James bank robbery) and you’ve got a great evening!

    Anyway, it just struck me that keeping the lights bright downtown on summer evenings might not have to be about large-scale weeklong Crazy-Days-style events or bringing in business from around the state. It could simply be about little things that bring Madisonites themselves downtown — instead of to Sioux Falls or Brookings — for their evening entertainment.

  4. skybluesky says:

    South Dakota needs an non-profit organization based on the Minnesota Design Team concept to aid communities with Main Street revitalization.
    check out this link: http://www.minnesotadesignteam.org/mdt.asp?go=explore&action=showportfolio&portfoliokey=1
    This is a great concept that injects professional architects into the revitalization process. Cities can even go as far as adopting facade codes and programs to assist property owners to update Main Street facades up to architectural standards determined by a design committee. Great idea that hasn’t been developed in South Dakota. This needs to happen quickly before all historical elements of South Dakota Main Streets dissapear.

  5. Erin says:

    Skybluesky,
    Great link! I didn’t know this organization existed; I look foward to reading through their website in more depth. On first glance, I did see that their site is hosted by CharretteCenter Inc., a town design firm that helped in the design of the now not-to-be-built town of Laurent, SD. I was very sorry to find out that Laurent would not be built here in South Dakota, because the town planners are so visionary and have ideas that would translate well to SD.

    I completely agree that we need to act here in SD before our buildings are beyond repair and restoration. I hope I can help make that happen. Thanks again for some great information.

  6. Erin says:

    Skybluesky,
    Turns out we do have a South Dakota Design Team! Check them out here.

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