Main Street Leads to Success

Broad Street isn’t the only main street in downtown Athens.

Despite a nationwide economic downturn, cities’ downtown areas are actually experiencing moderate fiscal success thanks in part to the Main Street development program, opperated on the state level by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs’ Office of Downtown Development.

“Downtowns are doing better than most other retail areas,” said Billy Parrish, GDCA Downtown Development director. “Most people are experiencing a budget crunch, but there are still quite a few who want to get on board with the Main Street program.”

Athens was one of the first five cities to join the movement in the incipient year of 1980. Since that time, approximately 1,800 cities in 44 states have earned the same certification, including over a hundred in Georgia.

According to a report submitted by the Athens Downtown Development Authority, Athens added a net gain of 386 jobs and 17 businesses to downtown during 2009. During that time, approximately $40 million dollars was invested into downtown, through both private and public sources.

“Main Street provides us with a network that allows us to bounce ideas off of one another,” said Katheryn Lookofsky, director of the ADDA. “No one ever has to reinvent the wheel, because nearly all issues we face have been dealt with some where else before.”

The ADDA is Athens’ Main Street sponsoring organization and has been an integral part in establishing Athens as a trailblazer in downtown development. Not only was Athens one of the first cities to join Main Street, but it remains one of the largest in the state.

“While Downtown Athens has its own unique set of challenges, it is unquestionably the envy of many cities in the Main Street program.” said Brenda Hayes, a public service associate at the University of Georgia’s Fanning Institute. Fanning is a social outreach program within the University that participates in similar municipal growth projects.

“With the amount of visitors we routinely have coming into downtown, Athens faces different issues than smaller communities,” said Lookofsky. “Still, each town has a unique perspective and we can easily learn from smaller cities.”

The GDCA operates a similar program called Better Hometowns for communities with populations less than 5,000. Athens has an estimated population of over 100,000.

To achieve its goals, Main Street focuses on four areas of municipal development: design, organization, promotion, and economic restructuring. The program provides a number of resources to their members including professional consultation, technical assistance, leadership training, and regional networking sessions.

A focus of the Main Street ideology is preservation with the hope that a downtown will make the most of what it already has. This approach is more manageable for smaller communities that do not have large budgets to spend on rebuilding.

Only a few years ago, the GDCA has altered the way cities are accepted into the program. A monitored start-up period is now involved to assure that the community is committed to a long-term development initiative.

“It’s not enough just to develop initially,” said Parrish, from the GDCA headquarters in Atlanta. “We want a community to maintain the basics of the program over time. This isn’t the old fashioned beauty contest.”

Clarkesville, Ga. is the latest Main Street city. Woodstock and Canton were predicted by Parrish as the next two in line. City leaders new and old to the program alike can attend the program’s state training session on March 17-19 held in St. Mary’s, Ga.

Athens has long been a good example of how to effectively manage available resources.

Downtown Athens does not have any alleyways to use for trash disposal and truck delivery. To address the truck issue, the city has adopted the infamous middle delivery lane.

“Having trucks constantly parked in the middle of the street isn’t the ideal situation, but it is the best available option for what we have,” said Lookofsky. “At least it works well to slow down traffic.”

This example might not have ever been used anywhere else before, but can be used as a teaching moment for places with similar issues in the future.

Preservation doesn’t only apply to a city’s buildings or resources, but also extends to each citiy’s unique identity.

“It is good to be able to collaborate on issues, but in the end each specific town has its own perspective and its own issues,” said Parrish. “After all, there’s only one Athens.”

One Comment on “Main Street Leads to Success”

  1. […] Published on Civic Life in Downtown Athens blog on March 18, 2010 […]

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