MAKING old downtowns come alive. That is the purpose of the Main Street revitalization program launched 10 years ago by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. About 500 towns in the United States, with populations ranging from 5,000 to 50,000, have spiffed up old buildings, rekindled economic vitality, and invigorated their downtowns with a sense of vibrancy and fun.
Reinvestment reaching into billions of dollars has been generated by these Main Street programs. And tens of thousands of new jobs have been created as downtowns have become more visually attractive and more compelling to shoppers, investors, and visitors.
Among the more successful ``Main Street'' towns are Athens, Ga.; Lawrence, Kan.; Sonora, Calif.; Beaufort, S.C.; Holland, Mich.; Burlington, Iowa; and Winchester, Va. In each case, years of neglect have been erased by a lavish amount of love and sweat.
Now virtually self-sustaining, Main Street is not only one of the trust's most successful programs in the US, but other countries are also investigating its approach as a remedy for small-town woes.
In 1978, the National Trust, knowing that small towns had no place to turn for help, viewed the problem of deteriorating downtowns as critical.
Mary Means, then director in Chicago of the Midwest regional office of the National Trust, was acutely aware of these foundering towns and helped devise the Main Street Program as a new approach to preservation of traditional commercial areas.
She explained that the explosion of the automobile society that occurred after World War II, and the proliferation of suburbs and regional shopping malls, resulted in a 30-year cycle of decline and disinvestment in downtowns. The distinctive flavor and character of many small towns was being lost and many of their architectural treasures were being demolished.
``We felt the urgency of finding something that offered hope,'' said Ms. Means (now a partner in Thomas & Means Associates, a planning and urban design development firm in Washington, D.C.) - ``some program that was realistic and doable, and scaled to both the means and capabilities of small towns.''
The initial effort was to save buildings, she said. ``Then we quickly realized that in order to save the buildings we had to find ways for them to earn their keep. That meant we had to learn how business was conducted, what the competition was, and how downtowns could compete without going head-on with shopping centers.''
Three midwestern towns - Galesburg, Ill., Hot Springs, S.D., and Madison, Ind. - became pilot towns for hands-on assistance and the testing of theories and ideas to see what worked and what did not. From this initial involvement came the comprehensive strategy for downtown revitalization that has been followed since. This includes organizational development, assistance in developing design standards, image-building and public relations campaigns, and economic restructuring.
The National Main Street Center was established at National Trust headquarters in Washington, D.C., to provide assistance to states in establishing comprehensive downtown revitalization programs at the state level and in running these programs locally.
Both state and local participants were offered continuing consulting sessions and complete training in techniques of downtown revitalization, as well as ongoing project manager meetings and workshops.
HOW is a town chosen for the Main Street program? It must have a population at or below 50,000 and an intact downtown with some identifiable boundaries and some historic-building fabric. It must be able to show broad-based local support for such a revitalization program and enough financial and volunteer resources to support the commitment for three years.
Local support usually comes, Means said, from merchants, bankers, public officials, the chamber of commerce, and various civic groups. Funding of existing programs has come from a variety of sources including private contributions, foundation grants, legislative funding, state lottery funds, and Community Development Block Grants.
``We had to learn how to develop and train leadership, and how to maintain momentum once a program got rolling,'' she said. She admitted some failures in towns where revival efforts had fallen apart. ``Success depends on the leadership that develops within a community and its willingness and ability to stick with the project.''
Each community chosen receives training materials and publications, hours of telephone consultation time, and ongoing project meetings and workshops. Basic to success, she says, is the presence of a full-time project manager in each Main Street community.
Every participating state must hire a full-time state coordinator to work with local Main Street organizations, monitor their progress, and oversee the design assistance the program provides to local projects.
Through its work with communities across the country, the center in Washington has developed a network of resources, a bank of information on downtown revitalization activities, and a unique understanding of the issues faced by downtown commercial areas. These are all part of the service it seeks to deliver to Main Street communities.
``Our job,'' says Elizabeth Jackson, who helped revive Jackson, Mich., before joining the Main Street Center staff, ``is to help re-establish downtown as a focal point in the community, an essential central location with goods and services that are worth patronizing. Surely downtown stores can capture those new customers who now have more money but less time, and who want more service and better quality merchandise.''
Downtown, Ms. Jackson suggests, ``presents the most concise living history of the development of a town as a whole, and we are involved in making it vibrant again and in helping merchants work cooperatively together.''
Bill Parrish, director of the National Main Street Center, says the essence of the Main Street program ``is in helping to build local capacity to undertake long-term management of downtown. Our effort has been to stop the cycle of decline and stabilize a downtown so it can proceed to grow and respond and adapt to change. We give the kind of help that enables downtowns to keep a continuing place in an ever- changing market.
Mr. Parrish came from directing a successful Main Street project in Rome, Ga., a regional center with a population of 30,000. ``We reversed the decline in three years, raised $750,000 locally to plow into downtown street improvements, and successfully launched major redevelopment.''
NOT all Main Street towns have been fully revitalized, he says, but many are in a state of transition to better management and fuller adjustment to the demands of the current marketplace.
Today, Mary Means suggests, it would be good to step back and take a good look at the program and its progress, analyze the changes that have taken place in 10 years, and assess how the program might be improved in the future.
The trust is the only national private, nonprofit organization chartered by Congress with responsibility for encouraging public participation in preserving sites, buildings, and objects significant in American history.
For information, write: National Trust for Historic Preservation, 1785 Massachusetts Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20036.