The Idaho Heritage Conference was held at the Idaho State Capitol building September 25-27th. This conference was the first that combined the annual conferences of the Idaho State Historical Society and the Idaho Archaeological Society and as such offered a great variety of workshops and field trips to those of us who are history geeks.
While attending one of these workshops I was introduced to the Main Street Program, a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In a time of continuing urban sprawl and the strip malls that accompany it this program seeks to revitalize and invigorate main streets in small towns with the hope of keeping shoppers and dollars in the local economy. The speaker at the workshop, Thom Guzman, is the head of the Iowa Main Street Program which was born out of the farm crisis and resulting recession that impacted much of the American Midwest in the 1980s. During this time the state of Iowa lost 5% of it’s population but gained 20% of it’s retail sprawl. The result was the decline of the downtown core of many small towns due to population loss and the changing habits of the population who stayed but were going to big box stores instead of local merchants to supply their daily needs.
This program is unique and has seen huge success in it’s mission of revitalizing small town main streets. It is a public private partnership that seeks to use historic preservation as a means of economic development, both of which are an essential part of the health of these small towns. Each community typically has only one or two paid employees with the remainder of the work being done by local volunteers, the citizens of each community come together and help create and contribute to their community. This civic participation fosters a sense of pride and connectedness among the population of the town and an awareness of what thier downtown has to offer.
Each downtown is unique to the community in which it exists and a healthy downtown is essential to a healthy community. In recent years, with the continued sprawling of urban areas small towns were losing both population and the character that had been a large part of the identity of the United States as a nation. All of our major cities began as small towns, the health and vitality of small towns is what grew our economy.
Our national demographics are changing, just as they are changing all over the world. It is expected that by 2025 more than sixty percent of the worlds population will live in urban centers. And while it is important that planners put effort into preparing for this shift, we as planners and citizens also need to remember where we came from as a nation. Small towns and local business were and continue to be a large part of what made America the great country that it is and keeping these places strong will preserve our history and strengthen our future while protecting the unique flavor of the American countryside.
The Main Street program is innovative and timely in working toward these goals and could be an excellent planning tool if properly utilized. It is currently most prolific in Iowa and has spread throughout the U.S. with the objectivet of preserving small town USA and the unique character that it brought to our nation as we grew.