Equity and inclusion on Main Street
Recent economic, social and political conditions have highlighted the many divisions and inequities in our communities. In many cases these disparities impact everyday life—for example, the availability of work and sacrifices expected of essential workers; access to broadband and the employment, school and commerce opportunities it provides; and adverse health outcomes for certain demographics as a result of the pandemic, among others. Downtowns have always been the place where the community comes together, whether to celebrate a local festival or homecoming win or to advocate for political change. As the heart of the community, downtown is the hub of government and symbol of a community’s past, present and future. It is the duty of Main Street and other downtown-focused organizations to ensure that downtown remains a place for everyone and that all are welcome, represented and comfortable visiting, engaging with and frequenting our downtown districts. As our populations age, shift and change, a periodic review of organizational structure, activities and the physical form of downtown may be in order for each district to ensure that the district is living up to its goal of being a welcoming place that serves all members of its community.
The culture of a place begins with the composition of its board and committee members. Often, organizations are happy to accept the application of anyone willing to serve, and may not be proactive in seeking out diverse opinions or perspectives. Consider whether your boards and committees include individuals from various age groups, backgrounds and perspectives. Just as businesses and property owners may have differing views on issues, different demographic groups can bring both new ideas and new groups of prospective volunteers to the organization—something that all downtowns need. Your organization may want to consider implementing a board matrix to identify gaps in representation and work to recruit members with specific backgrounds or areas of expertise. It may also help to consider adding a specific youth board seat to be held by a student at a local high school or college, providing community youth with board experience while also contributing a new voice to board discussions.
An example of a diverse Main Street Board matrix
Another way that organizations can actively engage new audiences is by proactively reaching out to targeted groups to help take on a specific project or program. Downtown Beloit worked with a group of high school students to create a list of “Things to Do for Teenagers in Downtown,” which was made available at the visitor center. Placemaking activities are another opportunity to engage specific community partners in limited-time projects. One example is the partnership between Downtown Mainstreet La Crosse and a SOUP committee, which raised funds for the 500 Main Alley art project. Not only can partnership build networks within the community, but an expanded network can get more and different types of projects accomplished that would not have been otherwise.
Youth entrepreneur Emilee Rysticken in her Two Rivers shop
The language and images a district uses to talk about itself can also subtly reinforce messages about who is welcome. While it is appropriate to focus your marketing efforts on attracting groups that are most likely to be interested in what the district has to offer, materials targeted towards business owners or the local community should still be representative of, and distributed to, a broad audience. For example, by emphasizing family-friendly activities or showing large numbers of images of families with children, a community might be discouraging singles or older couples from visiting more often, and thus losing out on participation from a demographic that makes up a significant percentage of your local market. Once you identify the types of images you are missing, you can then focus on capturing those experiences during your next photo session or at your next event.
Similarly, many of our districts dedicate significant time to focusing on sharing the history of the district. However, this narrative often focuses on the stories of individuals and families associated with large landmark buildings. Consider exploring additional aspects of your community’s history to share the diverse stories that make your downtown the unique place it is today. Even when landmarks may not remain, the history is worth sharing, as with these three examples:
- Lancaster property owner first to be sued for back wages to freed slaves in 1900
- Band of Janesville citizens gathered at Milwaukee and Franklin Streets to prohibit the recapture of a fugitive slave
- Historic accounts of the location and layout of Native American encampments and cemeteries in the vicinity of modern-day downtown La Crosse
Promotions are a great way to include new audiences and perspectives. Visitors are always interested in new experiences, sights and sounds. Inclusive promotions can range from adding new elements to existing events (a Día de los Muertos element to an existing harvest event, or more diverse food offerings at a food cart festival), or entirely new events highlighting the diverse heritage of area residents. Successful examples include Darlington’s longstanding Cinco de Mayo festival and Two Rivers’ Ethnic Fest, which features a parade, food and music from each of the distinct ethnic groups represented in the community’s heritage. Another good strategy is to ensure that master event calendars include all events, not just those that target a certain demographic. Including substance abuse classes, church group offerings, or meetups happening downtown can demonstrate that everyone is welcome in downtown.
Dancers at the Two Rivers Ethnic Fest
Similarly, district branding can feature diverse and inclusive voices. This can be done through a careful approach to existing messages or through a dedicated campaign to highlight the district’s diversity. First, evaluate existing marketing campaigns to determine whether they represent all types of businesses, or only those catering to a certain type of audience. Do features highlight volunteers and workers of all types, or just business owners or professional volunteers? To create a broader awareness of diversity, a district might focus specifically on showcasing diversity, such as with the I Am Wausau campaign, which uses high-quality photography and narratives to tell the diverse stories of Wausau stakeholders, or the Hear Here audio tour in La Crosse, which added stops during 2020 to highlight the experiences of Black community members.
I Am Wausau highlights community diversity
Last but not least, ensure that your events and marketing materials are widely accessible. Above and beyond providing accommodations to those that request it (which is legally required), consider offering a sensory-friendly area/times, sign language or other interpretation services, or even appointing an ambassador to make sure that participants are able to locate and access all aspects of the event. By assigning someone to focus on this task, they are more likely to notice and make planners aware of potential shortcomings. Make sure that digital marketing materials include alternate text for all images accommodate those with visual impairments, and make the structure of your site and any forms well organized and keyboard navigable (via the tab key).
From the moment someone steps into your district, the design plays a significant role in how welcoming the place feels, and continues to influence that person’s physical and visual experience as they navigate around the district. Design elements determine if a visitor stops at all, and if they do, how long they can linger comfortably. Beginning with the entrance to a community, consider the entire spectrum of the visitor experience. Offer clear vehicular wayfinding (including parking directions), followed by appealing, clean and well-lit parking areas and then pedestrian wayfinding for those on foot. Ensure that the sidewalks are shoveled, in good repair and well-lit. Sidewalks and bike lanes should connect major destinations and not require pedestrians to travel multiple blocks to access a crosswalk. Provide a full complement of street furniture (benches, bike racks and water fountains) to allow visitors to stop often to enjoy downtown and meet their physical needs. Public restrooms, or a map/signs indicating where restrooms can be found, are also critical to allowing visitors to stay beyond an hour or two. Adopt the “8-80 design philosophy,” which states that a space that is user-friendly to both an 8-year-old and an 80-year-old will accommodate nearly everyone. To test your system, borrow a stroller or a wheelchair and attempt to navigate your district. Notice where this task becomes difficult and work to address these shortcomings.
Graphic signs are both attractive and aid wayfinding
Next, consider your public spaces. They should accommodate all types of activity, including just resting. Are there clear areas where visitors can fly a kite, have a picnic, walk their pets and park their bikes? If there is no obvious location to carry out common activities, visitors will either leave the district early or will undertake the activities anyway with a sense of guilt, which certainly detracts from the experience. As more residents of all ages move into downtown districts, the need for public spaces to serve as an extension of living spaces is critical. No-loitering and no-pets-allowed areas are directly in contrast to the needs of residents and will limit the ability of residential development to truly transform a district into an evening and weekend activity zone.
Restrooms and other public amenities are part of a welcoming downtown
The final element of welcoming design is signage. In addition to clear directional signage, consider the instructional signage that is featured downtown. What percentage is dedicated to prohibiting activities versus welcoming them? If your district is dominated by signs prohibiting activities, consider switching the focus. On a sign indicating “No Pets on Beach” or “No Smoking” signs near buildings, consider adding language indicate the location of a pet-friendly park or a designated smoking areas. Rather than “No Glass Containers” signs on the beach, signs could state “Picnics Welcome. No Glass Containers.” In addition to welcoming messages, signage itself can also be welcoming. Consider adding more visual elements to existing signage or adopting an ordinance that rewards sculptural signage for businesses. Sculptural signs and those with graphics allow those who do not speak English or who may have poor eyesight to easily comprehend the message being conveyed and are therefore more welcoming than simple lines of text.
The economic vitality focus of Main Street is designed to foster prosperity and sustainability in businesses and properties throughout downtown. But often organizations can be distracted by new businesses and projects at the expense of existing businesses. In community surveys, we find that one of the most frequent complaints from businesses is that significant time and energy is spent welcoming new businesses and facilitating new projects, but little recognition is given to businesses that have been mainstays in the district for decades, and little aid is available for ongoing maintenance expenses over facelifts, even though these investments are essential in preserving historic structures.
Effective campaigns promote the wide variety of businesses and owners in the district
To avoid the pitfalls associated with focusing on “shiny new objects,” ensure that marketing efforts recognize all types of businesses. Celebrate business anniversaries as well as openings. Make sure to feature all types of businesses in marketing campaigns, not just those that portray a certain image of your district. It may make sense to group businesses with similar clientele together for features to allow a variety of demographic groups to see the variety of businesses available to serve them within the district.
If your district offers loans or grants to businesses or property owners, consider whether your required match discriminates against startup businesses that may have limited capital to invest. Is there a way that they can contribute in a non-monetary fashion? Tomahawk Main Street allowed businesses to repay their 0% small loans either in a repayment plan or by contributing a certain number of volunteer hours. Similarly, loan and grant programs that offer reimbursement for work performed may inadvertently eliminate businesses without cash on hand from participating. Consider allowing funds to pay contractors directly rather than requiring businesses to await reimbursement. Also consider expanding financial assistance programs to cover a wider variety of capital improvement needs as eligible for loan and grant programs to create opportunities for existing businesses to improve their properties when signs and awnings are not a concern.
Small and/or temporary spaces help support entrepreneurship and business local business growth
When recruiting new businesses, recognize that minority and disadvantaged business owners often have less startup capital than established businesses. The availability of affordable spaces in downtown and existence of a built-in market in the form of foot traffic makes it an appealing location for these new businesses. However, the fairly large spaces and dated buildout that often come with these affordable spaces may mean that businesses are unable to make improvements needed to maximize profitability in the space. Encouraging property owners (or providing financial tools) to subdivide larger spaces into a variety of smaller sizes can allow entrepreneurs to enter spaces more affordably. Similarly, “white box grants”, which are grants to make dated or unfinished storefront space move-in ready, and/or partnerships with artists or other skilled tradespeople can help affordably improve the visual appeal of spaces to make them more functional and effective as sales spaces for new tenants. Alternatively, or in the event that your community has few smaller or vacant spaces, existing businesses can be encouraged to allow entrepreneurs to rent shelves or corners of their space, potentially on a consignment basis.
Relevant to all four points, but especially relevant to materials designed to assist businesses and property owners, is the advice to make certain documents, such as façade grant brochures and applications, available in multiple languages, a step that can increase utilization of these programs among minority populations. Similarly, design guidelines and other business assistance tools can be provided in multiple languages to provide equitable access to resources for all types of businesses.