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Pay attention to those red and white signs

Have you noticed those red and white signs popping up at the entrances to cities and towns across Mississippi? There are — or will be — 52 of them when the sprouting is completed. There will probably be more as time goes on. The signs inform motorists that they are now entering a certified Mississippi Main Street community.

So what is it about the Main Street program that cities and towns are clamoring to be designated as such? After all, this designation does not come very easily. A community desiring to become a Main Street community must jump through a lot of hoops, and then keep jumping after it receives the designation. It must pay an application fee, have community meetings to develop a strategic plan, demonstrate support from a variety of community leaders and commit to hiring someone to manage the program. There have been quite a few so-called community and economic development designation programs that have come and gone. Most were just a shade more than politically inspired programs that required communities to do something, such as identify certain assets, to get a designation and a sign at the city limits.

So why has the Main Street program been around for more than 15 years and continues to grow? The answer is that it works. Communities have discovered that by following the Main Street approach, they will probably have an improved downtown and a better business climate. And what is this approach? They call it the “Four Point Approach” because it has four fundamentals. Those points are as follows:
“Organization: The organizational elements bring together the public sector, private groups and individual citizens with coordination by a paid program manager to work more effectively in the downtown, and surrounding areas.

“Promotion: By promoting the downtown in a positive manner, a community can begin to focus on downtown as a source of pride, social activity and economic development potential. This involves enhancing the image and changing attitudes.

“Design: Utilizing appropriate design concepts, the visual quality of the downtown buildings, signs, window displays, landscaping and environment is enhanced. The appearance of a community is crucial to its marketability.

“Economic Restructuring: This element involves assessing and strengthening economic assets in the downtown business community. Main Street enhances customer attraction by developing ways to upgrade and expand existing businesses and creating an environment that will attract new ones to strengthen the mix.”

‘Can’t manage it if you can’t measure it’
As this columnist’s regular readers know, I have a bias toward responsibility and accountability as being hallmarks of any successful business or organizational strategy. I have seen more well-developed strategic plans that were left unexecuted than I can count. Thus, from my perspective the requirement that a Main Street community have a paid manager who must make monthly reports to a statewide office is one of the secrets to the success of the program. As they say, you can’t manage it if you can’t measure it. And like any successful association, the local managers meet at least twice a year to share ideas and help each other solve problems.

I often liken Main Street managers to shopping mall managers. They are in effect managing a large retail and commercial complex with much of the same duties and responsibilities as a shopping mall manager. They plan and coordinate events, keep tabs on the needs of the tenants (the businesses) and serve as the clearinghouse for information. Unlike a mall manager, however, they often must organize the shoppers (the community) as well as the merchants. Diplomacy and persistence are useful traits for a Main Street manager.

The statewide program is managed by the Mississippi Main Street Association, under the able leadership of Bob Wilson and a diverse, passionate board of directors. Its mission “…is to administer the Mississippi Main Street Programs, and to provide the communities of the state with information and services to help them accomplish their downtown development and revitalization goals.” Main Street is part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and there are over 1,200 Main Street programs nationwide. More information can be found at its Web site at www.mainstreet.org.

So, next time you are riding around Mississippi and you see one of those red and white signs, find your way to the downtown area and soak it in.

About Phil Hardwick

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