Nationwide program helps revive America's main streets

For many years a gaudy sign covered the entire second story of Ben's, a clothing store on Main Street here. Today the sign is down and the decorative brickwork on the facade has been restored. On the street level, Ben's inviting storefront features logos reminiscent of the 1920s, when the store was founded.

Change doesn't come easily in this hard-bitten Yankee town, but over the past few years residents have worked hard to bring a new image to a community that lapsed into a slow decline beginning in the 1930s following its bustling textile and carriagemaking days.

Amesbury had already begun a modest downtown renewal when it was selected 2 1 /2 years ago as one of 30 small towns across the country to participate in the Main Street project, a self-help, downtown revitalization program sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

''Amesbury was on the move and was ripe for this type of program,'' says Joe Fahey, the Main Street project manager for the town. ''It really assisted us in guiding our efforts and in recognizing what we had already done. It gave the people in Amesbury something to be proud of.''

Nationally, the Main Street project has achieved remarkable success in helping towns renew both buildings and business in older commercial districts, many of which must compete with shopping malls and modern stores conveniently srung along highways.

The National Main Street Center sends in a resource team to each town in the program. It assesses the community and proposes a revitalization program. From then on, a resident project manager and community members are responsible for carrying out the plan.

''I feel the Main Street program has had a tremendous impact,'' says Herb Karas, owner of Ben's. ''People feel positive about the downtown area. Merchants are reinstating confidence in the downtown area by putting more money into our businesses.''

Amesbury's downtown has received over $2.5 million in private investment so far, and a developer is renovating the first of seven red-brick buildings in the abandoned millyard for commercial and retail use. By the end of this year, 26 storefronts will have been rehabilitated, with funds coming, in part, from federal Community Development Action Grants.

''Main Street's basic goal is to combine preservation with good, bottom-line economic development,'' explains Tom Moriarty, a program associate at Main Street headquarters in Washington, D.C. ''Initially the trust's interest was in preserving the buildings. But we realized quickly that in dealing with a commercial area, if it's not making a profit, preservation is a moot point.''

Following a successful pilot project in three Midwestern towns from 1977 to 1980, the National Main Street Center selected Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, and Colorado to take part in the current three-year program. Each of the states then chose five towns with populations ranging from 18,000 to 50,000.

Since the onset of the project, each of the six states has added new towns to its list. Main Street headquarters plans to continue assisting interested communities when the three-year demonstration project draws to a close in October. Pennsylvania, for example, announced 14 more towns last February. Texas , the most ambitious Main Street state, plans to add five new towns each year until 1990.

''The National Trust came up with a whale of an idea,'' says Anice Read, director of the Main Street project at the Texas Historical Commission. ''It is just unbelievalble what has happened to the small towns in this state.''

At the core of Main Street's effectiveness is a four-pronged formula each town tailors to its own needs. This involves organizing community groups such as bankers, city government, the chamber of commerce, and the merchants' association; upgrading the town's appearance by improving building facades, signs, window displays, and public areas to bring out the unique character of the town's commercial district; using advertising and marketing techniques to promote the downtown as an appealing shopping and community center; and analyzing the downtown area to correct imbalances in the economic structure.

Mrs Read cites a particularly dramatic success story in Hillsboro, a town about 70 miles south of Dallas whose downtown area was dilapidated and ''totally dead.''

Since the Main Street program began, $2.5 million of private investment has been funneled into the downtown, and 48 buildings have been rehabilitated. Thanks to retail recruitment and the enthusiastic efforts of the newly organized downtown merchants association, the town now draws shoppers from around the region.

''They've done everything right,'' Mrs. Read says. Although preservation efforts are only part of the Main Street formula, she continues, ''there has to be some visible change for there to be hope.''

Many towns have taken advantage of tax breaks granted to developers renovating buildings on the National Historic Register. In Texas, facade improvements have been spurred by low-interest loans from local banks.

Georgetown, a community three miles north of Austin, was added to the Main Street list 18 months ago. Already more than $5 million of private investment has been poured into the town to fund restoration of the ornate Victorian buildings surrounding the town square.

''[The success] has just been phenomenal,'' Mrs. Read says triumphantly. ''I sit here and I just cannot believe it. The phones ring off the wall, with more small towns wanting to get into the Main Street project.''

States not yet in the program are noting the economic and visual achievements of the Main Street communities over the past three years. Fourteen more, including Oregon, South Carolina, Michigan, Minnesota, and Tennessee, are requesting assistance from Main Streeet headquarters in applying downtown revitalization techniques to their own towns.

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