Lake Mills WI Commons Park bandstand

Lake Mills, Wisconsin, a Main Street community, enhances the quality of life for residents and visitors by offering concerts in downtown Commons Park.

I recently attended Main Street Now, the annual conference of the National Main Street Center, Inc. Over 1,500 Main Street directors, economic development professionals, and community leaders from small towns, mid-sized cities and urban neighborhood business districts from throughout the U.S. and Canada met in Milwaukee to share successes and insights, address challenges, and plan for the future of their communities.

I’d like to share with you 12 insights that I took away from Main Street Now that have the potential to impact economic development beyond the borders of downtown districts. If any of these resonate with you, consider whether you could apply them to your own work, programs, or region.

  1. Talent attraction is important to you and to Main Street, too. If you have a Main Street community (or several) in your region and you haven’t already partnered with them, you may want to reach out to them to explore the possibility of collaborating on talent initiatives. They will be happy to learn about your efforts and share their plans and methods.
  1. Placemaking – a people-centered approach to transforming public spaces into community places – helps to create a sense of belonging and emotional connection to place. This sense of connection is critical to quality of life and is an important factor in successful talent attraction by helping build a place where people want to be.
  1. Connection is the single best indicator of a community’s prosperity. A higher level of community attachment – an emotional connection to a place that transcends satisfaction, loyalty, and passion – corresponds with a higher GDP growth, according to findings reported in the Soul of the Community Study conducted by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. One way to promote this type of connection is to encourage residents and business owners to “buy local.” This helps to build relationships within the community and creates a ripple effect that can include the creation of new jobs.
  1. Economic gardening is an alternative ED model based on the principle that it is entrepreneurs that drive economies, rather than large firms. The model was pioneered in Littleton, Colorado, in 1987. According to the Kauffman Foundation, Littleton has added 15,000 jobs since 1987, with no monetary incentives.
  1. Localism – the local production and consumption of products, epitomized by the “Buy Local” movement – supports the attraction of both business and talent. For example, in Asheville, North Carolina, a cluster of craft breweries has helped attract young professionals (read: Millenials) as well as larger brewing companies like Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, and Oskar Blues, to locate or expand in the region.
  2. Storytelling: Every community needs a storyteller. Find a good one and help them get your message out. Whether or not you’re telling your community’s story, someone else is out there telling stories about it, so take the opportunity when you can to influence the message. Consider creating a brand ambassador program to encourage “true believers” to share their stories.
  1. Don’t forget to tell the story of what’s going right in your community. The media usually focuses on the negative. Train yourself and the people around you to notice the positive, good-news success stories and disseminate them yourself to make sure the word gets out: on your website, social media channels, email newsletters, press releases, etc.
  1. Use infographics to communicate important, but complicated, points more quickly and easily. Think through the eyes of your audience when determining how to best explain a complicated issue to maximize the chance that they will buy into your idea or proposal.
  1. When faced with the challenge of determining potential re-uses for an empty commercial or industrial building, it can be helpful to “listen to the building.” Does it have a large, reinforced, open floor plan, like, for example, an old coal plant? What other types of companies need a large facility with this type of floor? A brewery or distillery? An indoor sports facility?
  1. Change should be driven by outcomes, not outputs. Building a vision statement through consensus of your stakeholders and community and using that to guide your efforts will help to ensure that your actions are strategic and your limited resources are being used effectively.
  1. Having data is important, but it is not enough in and of itself. In order to truly harness the power of data, you need to understand how to analyze and interpret it – or find someone who can do it for you.
  1. You need big ideas to create excitement and momentum, but if you actually want to get something accomplished, chunk those big ideas into smaller, more doable parts. For example, let’s say you want to develop a food manufacturing sector. It may be more feasible to start with an incubator kitchen that can help entrepreneurs launch and grow their businesses than it would be to attract a General Mills or ConAgra plant.

Economic development doesn’t stop at the “official” borders of your region. That applies to cities, towns, and downtown districts as well as counties and states, so don’t overlook the potential of the Main Street districts in your region to be partners and allies. The boat will go further, faster if everyone is rowing in the same direction.

Whether you need to develop strategies for talent attraction, market your region, tell your story, market a brownfield site, or put data to work for you, the Ady Advantage team can help. We use our experience, expertise, and understanding of the site selector’s perspective to craft strategies and initiatives that position your region for success. To discuss issues and challenges you’re facing, or to learn more about our services, contact Janet Ady at 608-663-9218.


What is Main Street?

The National Main Street Center, Inc. works with a nationwide network of coordinating programs and local communities to encourage preservation-based community revitalization. Main Street is focused on creating places that are economically competitive and socially connected, as well as developing leaders that can help their communities attain and maintain economic vibrancy. Since its founding in 1980, the National Main Street Center has provided resources and an organizational framework to over 2,000 older commercial districts, resulting in:

  • Over 246,000 buildings rehabilitated
  • More than $59.6 billion in new investment generated
  • More than 502,728 new jobs gained (net)
  • More than 115,000 new businesses gained (net)

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