“Old is the new green,” at least when it comes to downtown revitalization efforts in the United States, says the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The private nonprofit organization believes that saving buildings is the best way to create economically viable and sustainable city centers. The group advocates for the restoration and reuse of existing urban structures — versus demolishing them and erecting new ones — and it supports local entrepreneurs and communities in doing so.
One of the National Trust’s primary resources is an economic development tool called the Main Street Four-Point Approach. The tool walks people through a four-step process — organization, promotion, design, and economic restructuring — that provides a basis for starting local preservation initiatives. The big idea is to reinvigorate downtown areas using local assets, such as architectural and cultural heritage and, of course, small businesses. Through the Main Street program, the trust also connects communities to a vast support and resource network, whose members operate at the city, state, and regional levels nationwide.
Small-business owners who are interested in program are invited to attend the 2011 National Main Streets Conference in Des Moines, Iowa, where they can learn all about the Four-Point Approach and compare notes with more than 1,000 other community leaders. The conference, which is set to take place May 22 to 25, will give participants a chance to share best practices and explore new opportunities, challenges, and trends in downtown revitalization.
“Preservation-based economic development is not only essential to the success of Main Street, it is connected to issues consistently in the national spotlight,” organizers assert online. These issues include sustainability, smart growth, local fiscal investment, job creation, and fostering small, independent, and innovative businesses.
As a compelling example, the trust’s outreach coordinator, Erica Stewart, tells the story of MIT-trained computer engineer turned restaurateur Frederique Boudouani in the rural town of Elkader, about three hours outside of Des Moines. Boudouani, looking for a means to connect with his Muslim-American roots, discovered that Elkader was actually named after Abd al-Qadir, an Algerian national who resisted French occupation in the mid-1800s. Boudouani and his partner relocated there from Boston in 1996 and opened Schera’s Restaurant and Bar in the town’s historic center. Their efforts have since won a regional award and received recognition from the U.S. State Department.
“The Main Street program came to Elkader in 1991 and helped channel a citizen-led effort that has turned the downtown into an inviting, attractive, and dynamic place to live, work, and do business. It has helped restore the district’s original commercial buildings, create a public library from three vacant buildings, and install a river walk along the Turkey River,” Stewart writes. “The town’s revitalization successes were rewarded in 2001 when it won a Great American Main Street Award.”