Expert talks about becoming a Main Street community

Wednesday, November 19, 2014
Interested citizens listened intently as Nancy Williams talked about the Main Street program.

By Karen Hall

Editor

It started about six years ago in the very same room at City Hall: a movement to revitalize Lewisburg's downtown. Monday night interested residents braved the cold to assemble in the same room and hear Nancy Williams explain how to become a Tennessee Main Street community.

Williams is now the coordinator of that program, after 16 years as director of the Main Street program in Franklin.

"What better person to have than Nancy?" exclaimed LDA President Leland Carden in his introduction.

Williams started off by remembering Franklin's reputation as a "rough town" when she was in high school. Parents used to warn their teenagers, "Don't be stopping in Franklin!"

With a lot of hard work, this has been totally turned around-- Franklin now has a beautiful downtown, with many places to shop and eat, and lots of entertainment; a destination for tourists as well as locals.

"I remain optimistic about all downtowns," said Williams.

She told a bit of the history of the Main Street program. The National Trust for Historic Preservation saw the problem in the '70s -- interstates, malls and suburbs pulled the life away from historic downtowns, and the businesses which remained downtown put up modern facades and signs, destroying a lot of historic character. In 1977 they tried a pilot program with three towns, of which Madison, Ind. is the nearest to Lewisburg.

Now there are 2,200 Main Street towns dotted all over the map of the United States.

Lewisburg is already in the Tennessee Downtowns program, but there's quite a big step up to Main Street.

There are two major differences, Williams said. One is that the town is required to have at least a part-time paid director.

"It really does make a difference," she said.

The other difference is that Main Street goes on forever.

"Your work never ends," she said. "Franklin's not near done."

Williams noted the need for broad-based community support and strong mission and vision statements, as well as annual plans of work to be done.

Also needed are an active board of directors, sufficient and sustainable finances, and the four committees already discussed (design, economic restructuring, promotion and organization).

Williams took her listeners through the 10 stages of downtown revitalization, from tumbleweeds blowing down deserted streets to a vibrant town center, with many different businesses, including some run by young, home-grown entrepreneurs.

"It's a big step," she admitted. "We like to see communities succeed. We will do training, and we will try to help you, especially in the first year."

When it was time for questions, Lewisburg Director of Economic Development Greg Lowe asked, "How are most programs financed?"

"Most have a budget of about $100,000 per year," Williams said. "The city government puts in about $25,000, and the county government also contributes. There's some public support, and a lot of income from events."

"What we're missing is the ability to fund a director," Lowe said. "The city and the county are probably not able to do it."

Williams noted some cities and counties make their contributions "in kind" by providing man power, materials and equipment for projects, or by paying for the Main Street office and its utilities.

She offered some words of advice: never get involved in controversies over exterior paint colors, find a place for everything, don't be elitist, do a lot of encouraging, look at what other towns are doing, and don't dismiss an idea until you've tried it.

"There are a lot of things we have done or are already trying to do," said Carden. "We work in concert with the Community Development Board. It's just a matter of pulling it all together."

"I'll be glad to come back any time," said Williams as the meeting drew to a close. "I love Lewisburg!"

"We need your help; we need your interest," said Carden to everyone present.

The LDA will meet at 6 p.m. tomorrow Thursday, Nov. 20, at the Historic 1st Avenue Building, 207 1st Avenue North.