Bringing Business Back with Main Street Programs

A revival in American main streets started 30 years ago, providing an opportunity for businesses.

American main streets once seemed to have lost their way. Freeways led to spacious new malls in the ‘burbs that catered to a shopper’s every need. The old department stores with the toy train sets and dressed-up mannequins in the window couldn’t compete. The suburbs sucked all the life out of the downtown area. Businesses closed, leaving historic storefronts empty.

But those times have passed. A national revival of main streets started more than 30 years ago. Many cities in California and around the country have revived their downtown cores. Most people now realize that a vibrant main street gives a place a heartbeat. A downtown gets it life from the owners and their shops, which the malls never quite replicate.

Some communities are already in the advanced stages of a revival. Monterey, for example, started a main street program in 1992 and now has more than 460 shops and restaurants downtown. The city wants visitors to walk around. It has encouraged people to stop into the several landmarks that are free to visit, including a 160-year former theater where the first plays were staged in California. Yellow tiles embedded in the sidewalk lead the way to these historic sites.

One Main Street Aims to Turn a California City Around

Other places, however, are pulling themselves out of the depths. Richmond, CA, which was once compared by a state senator to a city in Iraq because of the street gangs and a high homicide rate, remains a dangerous place to live. The community, however, has put much work into a main street program that was started about a decade ago. The downtown is much improved. Last year, for example, volunteers power-washed sidewalks, benches, and bus stops, and several tenants have done renovations to improve the look of their buildings. Most recently, a restaurant announced plans it was opening in a 10,000-square foot space.

Communities have also seen their downtown revivals attract magnet businesses that will bring people to the city. Downtown Stockton, for example, redeveloped its downtown waterfront, beginning with a $6.5 million, 10-acre park that opened in 1999. Within the last decade, the city’s downtown has added a 16-theater IMAX multiplex and retail shopping center, a 10,000-seat hockey arena, and a baseball field. Condominium projects were also completed, so more people can now call downtown home.

Main Street Programs Come in Many Flavors

The communities mentioned above opted to participate in California’s main street certification program, known as California Main Street. Each participating community must meet strict criteria and pass an on-site inspection. In return for participating, the city gets technical assistance and training. Since the program was initiated in 1986, 27 California Main Streets have been designated through 2013 and 23 California communities are accredited nationally.

But those are the few communities that have sought formal recognition through the state and national program. Downtown revitalization efforts can take many forms. They can be organized by a nonprofit or a community development corporation (CDC), which serves as the point agency for obtaining grants and organizing projects. They can be driven by a loose-knit coalition of business owners that put on events and share the costs of marketing the downtown. Arrangements can also be tightly woven, such as when a city forms a business improvement district. The downtown business owners then pay special taxes that are poured back into the improvement of the street.

Most communities are interested in improving their main streets and downtowns. In fact, cities with diverse neighborhoods can have many such streets. Each neighborhood often has a unique center or heart that requires attention.

Businesses Can Catch a Main Street on the Upswing

Here lies an opportunity for local businesses. Previously, we have written that investors and businesses should keep an eye on places that are on an upswing. Property is sometimes undervalued on a main street, and could rise significantly as the neighborhood pulls itself up.

Communities with organized, targeted revival efforts are often on the radar of governments planning to invest in public infrastructure, such as major street reconstruction, landscaping, and lighting projects. On main streets especially, there are also often older buildings that could potentially qualify for historic preservation grants and tax breaks. But opportunities sometimes appear on main streets, and investors and developers should not attempt to seek these out alone. A commercial real estate consultant can help identify undervalued properties and those main streets and neighborhoods that show potential for revival in the near future.

If you are looking for property on a main street or in a growing neighborhood, you don’t have to go it alone. You can talk to a consultant whose community values align with your own. Contact DCG Real Estate today to learn more.