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Main Street Program pumps new life into Texas towns
Goin' Downtown

The days when a city's downtown was the destination for entertainment, shopping and other services have gone the way of the horse-drawn carriage, but with assistance from the Texas Historical Commission's Texas Main Street Program, some towns are luring locals and tourists back downtown.

"In the '50s, '60s and '70s, our downtowns started experiencing a serious decline," said Kim McKnight, state coordinator for the Texas Main Street Program. "A lot of this was a result of the widespread use of the automobile, the advent of shopping centers and shopping malls and the popularity of suburban American. We really decentralized our towns."

For more than 20 years, though, the Historical Commission has been putting main streets across Texas back on the map.

Main Street makeover
The Texas Main Street Program, which started in 1981, uses a four-part approach to revitalizing downtowns: design, promotion, economic restructuring and organization.

After an initial three-day, on-site evaluation of the city, representatives from the program provide recommendations to the city in those four areas.

The design element means paying attention not just to individual buildings but the entire design of downtown, from helping property owners comply with building codes and Americans with Disabilities Act standards to helping business owners create attractive window displays, McKnight said.

Main Street representatives help cities develop a positive image not only through large events designed to attract tourists downtown but also through smaller promotions, such as Easter egg hunts on town squares, designed to attract local residents.

Economic restructuring assistance means teaching cities how to recruit new businesses into downtown and expand existing ones.

The fourth part, organization, is about building partnerships and coalitions and bringing together the private and public sector to develop a plan for downtown, McKnight said.

"The success of our program is about local communities really empowering themselves and determining their own fate, and we give them a lot of assistance along the way," McKnight said.

One of a kind
Since Mineola--population 4,550--became a Texas Main Street city in 1989, it has seen a 30 percent increase in occupancy of its downtown buildings, said Mercy Rushing, Mineola community economic development director.

"Half of downtown was boarded up, and now most of the buildings are being occupied," Rushing said. "I have a waiting list for buildings to come open so businesses can come in."

The city has gained about 289 jobs and more than $8 million in reinvestment funds since the program's inception, Rushing said.

"Our sales tax figures have gone up anywhere from 3 to 5 percent, up to 7 percent a year since 1989," Rushing said.

For the first three years of the program, Main Street provided Mineola with technical assistance and training, Rushing said.

"We got drawings from their architects," Rushing said. "The retail and display specialists helped us educate our retailers and merchants about hospitality training, how to market themselves, how to display their products and how to produce a business plan--things that small mom-and-pop businesses don't have access to."

Because downtown businesses must now compete with strip malls and large discount stores, they must offer customers something different, Rushing said.

"We have a Wal-Mart Supercenter in our city, and that kind of woke us up," Rushing said. "We focused on tourist-based businesses and made sure what we were doing didn't compete with Wal-Mart."

The city offers tax abatement incentives for making improvements to downtown buildings and for locating within the Main Street district, as opposed to strip malls or by the Wal-Mart center, Rushing said.

Richard Scullion, who co-owns the Carousel Boutique, a specialty ladies' clothing store and gift shop in downtown Mineola, said offering unique items is a must for luring customers to the boutique.

"If we find one of our items in a department store, we immediately drop the line," Scullion said.

He estimated that business has increased by 20 percent since the program began.

"It's a win-win situation for the retailers and business owners," Rushing said. "The same buildings that were dilapidated and barely renting for $300, now you can't touch for $500. And they're being sold. The property value has definitely increased."

New destinations
Larger cities in the Texas Main Street Program, such as Beaumont, with its population of 114,000, may have more ground to cover--at least 20 city blocks in Beaumont's case--but the renovations also generate bigger economic gains, said Carolyn Howard, Beaumont's Main Street manager.

"Over $65 million in reinvestment has happened downtown in building restoration, building renovation, new construction and property acquisition since 1992," when Beaumont entered the Main Street program, Howard said.

Howard estimated the city also gained 1,400 jobs.

"At least half of those jobs did not exist before 1992, so it's not just people moving around downtown," Howard said.

Before the restoration process began, downtown Beaumont was in bad shape, said Nancy Beaulieu, city councilwoman and former Main Street manager for Beaumont.

"We had all these abandoned buildings and people sleeping in the alleys," Beaulieu said. "You did not see anybody downtown after 5 o'clock. But now people are downtown every night. We have an entertainment district with a whole block of restaurants. In the last 13 years, our downtown is really on its way to being a showplace."

Building partnerships
The Texas Main Street Program has worked with 148 communities to help them improve more than their looks.

McKnight estimated that the program has created more than 20,000 jobs and more than 5,000 new businesses.

To be eligible for the program, cities must have historic commercial buildings in their downtown or neighborhood business districts.

Cities with fewer than 50,000 residents must hire a full-time Main Street manager for three years to oversee the program and provide funding for the local portion of the program. Cities with more than 50,000 residents must cooperate with a private, nonprofit organization; hire a full-time staff for at least five years; provide funding for the local program; and pay a graduated fee.

Community support is a must for cities applying for Main Street designation, McKnight said. The city must submit letters of support with its application from members of the community, especially business and property owners in the downtown area, because the city plays a large role in funding the program.

Howard said the training and networking opportunities the program provides were invaluable.

"How do you get these programs started and how do you keep them going?" Howard asked. "Texas Main Street is an outstanding grassroots effort. It involves every mayor, every council member in all those cities."

Though the Texas Main Street Program is not a funding source for restoring downtowns, it does provide cities with the skills they need to attract investors.

"Local communities are supporting this program, but we've seen over a billion dollars privately invested back into downtowns," McKnight said.

Cashing in on history
Tourists are willing to shell out more money for a stroll down memory lane, according to the Travel Industry Association of America (TIA).

The Historic/Cultural Traveler, 2003 Edition, published by TIA, defined 81 percent of U.S. adult travelers in 2003 as historic/cultural travelers. According to the study, these travelers spend an average of $623 on historic/cultural trips compared to $457 on the average U.S. trip.

Historic preservation is a large part of the Texas Main Street Program's revitalization efforts. In addition to remodeling its historic buildings, both Mineola and Beaumont have restored the sidewalks and installed period lighting to showcase their historic roots.

"[Beaumont] has committed several years to public improvement," Howard said. "It is historic preservation with good economic development."

Angela Freeman