Why are Main Streets Important?
By Mary Heberling, Main Street Program Coordinator
When you think of main streets, what are some of your first thoughts? Empty storefronts? Historic, old buildings? Lack of foot traffic? These are most likely correct observations for many different cities and towns across the United States, but it wasn’t always the case. At some point in time, main streets and downtowns were the heart and soul of a community. It was their social structure; a place where a plethora of friendly business owners, willing to go above and beyond for their local residents, located and ran their shops. Today they can be described as a deserted area where remnants of the past still linger. So how did this devastating shift against main streets happen in the first place?
The building of highways that diverted traffic from the downtown core, the exodus of people to single family homes far away, and many other factors attributed to the decay of these central streets. With less traffic, people commuting out of the town, and development building off of the highways; it made it harder for main street businesses to stay afloat and survive. Today you can see the effects with empty storefronts, depleted buildings, lack of shops, and more.
These are the facts of what happened and some may say just the natural process of development, but throughout the country, many towns, communities, metropolitan areas are starting to take notice of their downtowns and main streets again. They are showing a new investment and interest that hasn’t been seen in 20 or more years. In fact, over 2,000 communities in the U.S. are participating in the National Main Street Program and have created great and vibrant main streets again. So what’s the big deal? Why are main streets so important?
First off, your Main Street or downtown is much more than a shopping center. They may not be your community’s most dominant shopping core, but they do provide unique shopping and service opportunities. You will see attorneys, physicians, accountants, insurance offices, and much more, along with typical retail and restaurants. Those unique aspects then play into your draw to tourists. They want to spend time in a place they can’t see and experience on a normal basis. Our main street is like no other in the world, so let’s celebrate and embrace it!
Main streets are a prominent employment center. They employ hundreds of people and can sometimes be the largest employer of a community. Many of those businesses are most likely local and independently owned as well. Not only do they hire local community members, but when you shop at a store on Main Street, you are supporting a local family, who in turn supports our schools, parks, etc. They keep profits in town, which emphasizes the importance of Main Street as a reflection of the tax base. As property values decrease in those main street areas due to neglect, the tax burden on other parts of your community increases. Parks, roads, utilities, etc may suffer from lack of funding.
Main streets play a big role as a business center. They serve as incubators for new businesses, creating new opportunities and success for the future. These new businesses then can attract other businesses looking for unique and great places to move. Your main street now plays the role of business recruiter and maintains retention. Soon those historic buildings that create the character of your community are now new business centers and hubs. A perfect example of excellent building re-use.
However, the most important reason is because your Main Street provides a sense of community and place. Author Carol Lifkind of Main Street: The Face of Urban American
said, “…as Main Street, it was uniquely American, a powerful symbol of shared experiences, of common memory, of the challenge, and the struggle of building a civilization…Main Street was always familiar, always recognizable as the heart and soul of the village, town, or city.”
Main Street isn’t and never was meant to be neglected and forgotten. Let’s not forget our main street in St. Helens. Let’s bring back our unique community center and celebrate its vast history and look forward to the future. Make a difference in your community and get involved in Main Street St. Helens!