Main Street at Dusk

There are many preconceived notions about what it means to be a Main Street community. Many of these are positive, calling to mind streets lined with locally-owned shops and vibrant with seasonal décor. However, some others perceive the program to be only for “small” or “large” communities, or designed to assist struggling districts. Others fear undue outside influence or requirements will hamper locally driven efforts. However, none of these concerns reflect reality.

The average Main Street community is approximately 5,500 in population, although districts include the core downtown area of communities as small as 742 and as large as 52,000, as well as individual historic commercial districts in larger communities such as Green Bay and Milwaukee. While participating programs are expected to undertake a comprehensive approach to revitalization that includes the Four Point Approach rather than the ‘plop method’ of prioritizing destinations and developments over sustainable growth, local districts are very much encouraged to set their own vision for what role their downtown can and should serve locally.

It is for this reason that the Main Street toolbox includes such a diverse array of resources: Need a how-to on a public art program? Creating a revolving loan fund? Developing an incubator space? Launching a housing program? These are only a few examples of the type of assistance provided to communities on a weekly, if not daily basis, providing resources and making connections wherever the need arises. In return, communities are asked to keep track of the impact of the program over time through a reporting system. While this reporting is valuable at the state level in illustrating the impact of Main Street, it is priceless to local communities, a valuable tool to aid in recruiting sponsors, grants and investment by illustrating the level of district support and also its future potential.

Becoming an Main Street

Any community meeting the minimum criteria of a defined historic commercial district; an established downtown revitalization-focused team (the legal structure of the organization can vary); and employing a full-time director with an annual budget of $70,000 (or a part-time director and $40,000 budget in communities of under 5,000 in population) can apply to be part of the Main Street program. The application process, occurring each April, involves both a written application, in which the applicant community provides a profile of their district and outlines their vision for the future. Applicants also make a formal presentation to the committee and answer questions about their expectations of the Main Street program to ensure that the program will be a good fit.

These requirements are placed on Main Street communities to ensure that participant communities have the foundation in place to maximize the resources provided by the program, which are valued at more than $250,000 over the first five years in the program. Programs that do not have adequate organizational structure, stakeholder engagement and fiscal means will be unable to successfully implement projects and programs that will move the district forward.

For communities that don’t currently meet these criteria, the Connect Communities program, started in 2013, provides an opportunity for additional communities to receive valuable training and assistance to start or expand downtown revitalization efforts locally. This program is also a great home for communities that may not have a defined or historic downtown district but are interested in establishing a community center and pursuing placemaking and community development strategies. As with the Main Street program, participants include a diverse array of small rural communities and large urban districts. Applications for this program are accepted twice annually and entail a simple two-page application with supporting materials and an annual $200 fee, which grants participants access to the downtown list serve as well as invitations to more than twenty annual educational and networking events held across the state on a broad range of topics related to revitalization.

Maps of participating communities and additional information can be found: