Main Street manager looks forward to new challenges, progress

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Opinion column

By Celia McDonald

Here I am, mind spinning with much-to-do in my new office full of information, grant applications, events planning and so much more. Then I look up on my office wall and see a huge check, huge any way you look at it: $132,075 (actually twice that much and more because it is matched by those who benefit from the grant for facade improvements). I am struck anew with the importance and challenge of having a good Main Street program in a small town.

Back in 1991, when I was publisher of the Harlan, Ky., newspaper, the community faced with terror the coming of a Wal-Mart store. What would it do to the local merchants? In some places it had been devastating, but not in Minnesota, where a Main Street program was formed to assist local businesses to find a niche and operate in a way that they might survive – even thrive – under that heavy competition. I heard about that at a National Newspaper Association Convention and it rang a big bell with me.

With the help of a local, forward-looking banker, the Daily Enterprise held a workshop and brought in speakers from that successful Main Street program. It was hosted by the local hospital. Lots of business people came for breakfast and a two-day learning and organizing session.

Harlan needed Main Street: The downtown had been left behind, bypassed by a through highway; much shopping was done at a mall on the bypass and other mall-like areas; downtown was gray by day and dark by night. People were ready to fight back anyway. Wal-Mart was just the inspiration they needed.

Once we organized Harlan Main Street, we learned money was already allocated for Harlan, but was to be lost in just a few weeks because no action had been taken and no agency formed. We used this rather large grant to set up low-interest loans in local banks for renovation of downtown commercial properties. The low-interest loans could be paid back quickly and rolled over – and over – for other businesses to use. We convinced merchants they needed to have longer hours and special downtown events, and we started off with a downtown Christmas celebration. We put our office in an empty storefront on the courthouse square.

Everyone worked together, volunteered time and in-kind and both physical and mental teamwork. Does that sound familiar? It is the typical picture for a Main Street city, where buildings are spruced up, attention given to local history, lots of community events provide activities for all ages. Money was brought in through grants and other programs, money which the city would otherwise not have had.

You can almost tell a Main Street town when you drive through it. It has a certain aura of life, of pride, of being on the move. It is so appealing that you want to stop. Danville always comes to my mind as one of the most successful of Main Street programs.

Pride in your city and your city government and your Main Street, Chamber and in our case Lincoln Days is essential to keep a community alive and growing, to give as many people as possible the sense of ownership through volunteering, through participating. That’s the difference between being a “bedroom community” for those who work in nearby cities and a traditional hometown.

Knowing the value of preserving our heritage helps us to find our place in the community and the world, helps us to feel the influence of those who have gone before and to align our future with our legacy from the past.

In this special time when Lincoln’s birthplace is receiving so much attention, Main Street has played a significant part in preparing Hodgenville for the tourists of the Bicentennial and the ongoing tourism which should be enhanced for many years.

I have always supported Main Street’s efforts, starting when I was editor/publisher of The Herald News. Now I realize that I will be faced with a terrific learning curve no matter how much applicable experience is behind me, because of the importance of this job. I am comforted by knowing of the members of this community who put Hodgenville first and work to give back to it. I will learn what I need to learn from them and hope that Main Street will continue to be an active, downtown-centered, community-driven agency and voice for preservation and heritage, letting residents enjoy what is here, helping businesses to be more prosperous.

I hope you share these goals and will join us in our efforts. Hodgenville needs Main Street.