Downtown development practitioners learn the Main Street America approach

08/07/17 in Community Engagement

Wisconsin Main Street directors and volunteers, as well as Connect Communities representatives and even a few Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) regional economic development directors, gathered in Madison on July 31 and Aug. 1 for a training for new Wisconsin Main Street directors. While this day-and-a-half-long training is required for any new directors of designated Wisconsin Main Street programs, it is also open (on an optional basis) to volunteers and local Connect Communities participants. The first day is filled with an in-depth exploration of the Main Street Approach, sharing the history and breaking the Four Points™ (design, economic vitality, organization and promotion) into easy to understand concepts peppered with examples from the downtown development team’s years of experience.

Introductions set the tone of the training, as attendees were asked to share not only their name and community, but also their favorite song. Responses elicited laughs, nods of agreement, and a few side conversations remembering life events relating to a song that was mentioned. Following intros, Darrin Wasniewski, state coordinator/organization and promotion specialist, led the group in a history lesson from the “pilot project years” of 1977, through the launch of a movement in 1980, to Wisconsin’s adoption of the Main Street approach in 1987 and its acceptance of the first five Wisconsin Main Street communities in 1988. He noted that three of the five original participants (Beloit, Ripon and Sheboygan Falls) are still part of the program today. Darrin emphasized that the approach is holistic, requiring a focus on all Four Points™ to achieve sustainable results—and more importantly, it is scalable to communities of all sizes, as noted by the two of the session participants, Shullsburg, a city of 1,200, and Historic King Drive, a Business Improvement District in Milwaukee.

DESIGN supports a community’s transformation by enhancing the physical and visual assets that set the commercial district apart. -Main Street America™

Wisconsin Main Street Design Specialist Joe Lawniczak led the group through a deeper understanding of the elements of design as it relates to historic commercial districts and downtowns. Joe introduced concepts such as building improvements, infill construction, signage and awnings, visual merchandising, sustainability, public improvements, and historic preservation planning.

He shared practical information on how preservation makes economic and environmental sense, as well as examples of best practices in building rehabilitation depending on the intended use. Ray Hill, assistant director of the Historic King Drive Main Street organization, noted of the design portion, “I thought the training was amazing! It was filled with information that sparked creative and independent thinking, as well as additional knowledge that is specific to our commercial corridor.”

Organization involves creating a strong foundation for a sustainable revitalization effort, including cultivating partnerships, community involvement, and resources for the district. -Main Street America™

Next, Darrin led the overview of organization.  He noted that the concept can be broken into three parts—volunteer leadership development, resource development, and community relations—all of which work together to create advocates and investors in the organization’s work.

Economic Vitality focuses on capital, incentives, and other economic and financial tools to assist new and existing businesses, catalyze property development, and create a supportive environment for entrepreneurs and innovators that drive local economies.- Main Street America™

Wisconsin Main Street Economic Vitality Specialist Errin Welty joked when taking her turn that she had the enviable job of speaking numbers right after lunch. True to form, though, this was not an issue. Errin spent her time delivering engaging content on the reasoning behind the focus on economic vitality (EV), common challenges and pitfalls, ideas for EV projects, and integrating EV with the other Four Points.

She even rewarded attendees with chocolate when they knew basic market information about their districts, such as number of businesses in the district, which businesses have been there the longest, the number of residents in the district, traffic counts, and the district’s trade area. Errin noted that she was impressed with the ease with which participants were able to answer her questions.

Promotion positions the downtown or commercial district as the center of the community and hub of economic activity, while creating a positive image that showcases a community’s unique characteristics. -Main Street America™

Darrin wrapped up day one and the Four Points™ discussion with an overview of promotion. He posited that promotion can be distilled into three elements—district image, retail promotion and special events—all of which work in conjunction with the other focus areas to create memorable visitor experiences.

Day two was just for Wisconsin Main Street directors, with focused information on operating a successful organization, meeting program requirements, and opportunities to engage with other Main Street America programs.

Deshea Agee, director of the Historic King Drive organization, summed up his experience, “The two-day executive director training opened my eyes to resources and strategies that I can use to bring Milwaukee’s Historic King Drive Main Street successes in a short period. After completing the training, I returned to the office and started implementing ideas shared by Darrin, Errin and Joe of WEDC. The training also provided an opportunity to learn from and network with leaders from other Main Streets and Connect Communities. Even with my 13-year career in economic development, I was blown away by how much information the staff packed into two days. It provided the right foundation to spur growth in Wisconsin’s newest Main Street community, Historic King Drive.”

Cory Ritterbusch, director of Advance Shullsburg, Inc., added, “I felt the new director training reflected the Wisconsin Main Street Program as a whole: professional, informative and friendly, with its mission clearly in sight at all times. The core staff works to ensure that all directors and their staff have all the resources they need to be successful, and the new director training was great proof of it. They are also colleagues who feel like friends and family, which is such a Wisconsin trait and makes it a fun program to be a part of.”

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