Wisconsin’s downtowns and historic commercial districts are the centers of commerce, government, banking and social life in our communities. By preserving and revitalizing these traditional cores, communities can distinguish themselves from the competition, enhance the sense of place and create opportunities for economic development.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation established the National Main Street Center in 1980 to assist nationwide downtown revitalization efforts. The Wisconsin Main Street Program, started in 1987, is based on the Trust’s philosophy, which advocates restoration of the historic character of downtown while pursuing other complementary community development strategies such as:
The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) works with communities ranging from villages with populations of less than 1,000 to large urban districts. Communities selected to participate in the Wisconsin Main Street Program receive free, intensive technical assistance. The end goal is to enable participating communities to professionally manage a downtown or historic commercial district that is stable, physically attractive, economically competitive and visible.
There are no quick fixes for downtowns/historic commercial districts seeking revitalization. Success is realized through the comprehensive and incremental approach of the Main Street Program. Four elements combine to create this well-balanced program:
Design involves creating an environment where people want to shop and spend time. First impressions can have a lasting influence. Rehabilitated buildings, attractive storefronts, enticing window displays, clean streets and sidewalks, and properly designed signage together present an appealing image to potential customers, tenants and investors.
Organization involves building a Main Street framework that is well represented by civic groups, merchants, bankers, citizens, public officials and chambers of commerce. Everyone must work together to renew downtown/urban neighborhoods. Fundraising, volunteer development and public relations are examples of organization-building activities.
Economic vitality involves analyzing current market forces to develop long-term strategies. Sharpening the competitiveness of Main Street’s traditional merchants, recruiting new businesses, and creatively converting vacant space for new uses represent appropriate revitalization strategies.
Promotion creates excitement in the downtown/urban neighborhood district. Street festivals, parades, retail events and image development campaigns are some of the ways Main Street encourages consumer traffic in the downtown. Promotion involves marketing an enticing image of the district to shoppers, investors and visitors.
Main Street communities enjoy access to technical assistance from both WEDC’s downtown development staff and a variety of outside consultants engaged annuallyh to address issues facing participant communities, property owners and businesses. Additionally, Main Street directors, board members and stakeholders have access to a wide variety of training sessions and resource materials to further local revitalization efforts.
Participating communities must have an organization dedicated to downtown revitalization efforts. The organization must employ a full-time director and maintain an annual budget in excess of $70,000. (Communities under 5,000 in population require only a part-time director and annual budget of $40,000.) Communities must apply through a competitive process each spring, with up to three new programs accepted annually.
Communities are selected for participation in the Wisconsin Main Street Program after going through a rigorous review process to demonstrate their commitment to the program and to maintaining long-term success for their downtown district.