City to look at Main Street Program for downtown spark

With Hillsboro’s Main Street losing several key businesses within the last year, a group of local citizens will gather Dec. 11 at an informational meeting to see if the “Main Street Program” would provide some spark for downtown.

Jean Stinson, with the Main Street Department out of the Kansas Department of Commerce and Housing in Topeka, is scheduled to speak at the meeting.

“The purpose of the Main Street Program is to revitalize the downtown area and (encourage) economic development,” said Larry Mann, executive director of the Herington Main Street Program.

Nearly 10 years ago, Herington, one of 23 cities statewide, joined the Main Street Program to bring new life to its economy.

“The program was started in 1991 and by 1996, $1 million dollars was spent on Main Street improvements, which include selling buildings for businesses,” Mann said.

The Main Street concept was established to determine the needs, help improve the commercial architecture and stimulate the economic environment of interested communities.

Other small communities across the country can participate in the program, which was established by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1980 and promoted by people like Stinson.

The Main Street Program was suggested some five years ago by interested Hillsboroans, but it did not gain significant support at the time.

“I would like to start fresh with Jean and see what she has to say,” said Carol Wiebe, who is executive secretary of the Hillsboro Development Corp.

The program, implemented in 550 communities in 30 states across the nation, encourages improvements by establishing the following four-point approach to creating a distinctive image for a downtown:

–Organization-to get everybody organized into one team to revitalize the downtown area by involving merchants, property owners, bankers, city officials, professionals, Chamber members and individual citizens.

— Promotion-to attract customers and investors by creating special events, festivals and retail sales promotions; a public relations plan; and logos and media presentations.

–Design-to study the existing buildings, storefronts, signs, public improvements, landscaping, merchandise displays and promotional materials, and suggest ways to make improvements.

–Economic restructuring-to find economical ways to help existing businesses and recruit new businesses.

At a minimum level, the four-point approach outlined above is implemented by a board of directors, a project manager and four committees.

Three committees are assigned to deal with promotion, design and economic restructuring, and the fourth committee deals with membership development, fund-raising and other organizational needs as deemed necessary.

“What you do is you form a compete, separate organization aside from the Chamber of Commerce and any economic development group you have,” said Hillsboro Mayor Delores Dalke.

“You pay separate dues to it, and a town that’s less than 5,000 needs to have at least a part-time director to administer the program.”

Any Kansas community with a population under 50,000 may apply to be designated as a Kansas Main Street City.

According to a Main Street memorandum brochure provided by Dalke, the following are the requirements to participate in the program:

–An understanding of and commitment to the Main Street four-point approach to downtown revitalization.

–A commitment to establish a downtown revitalization program based on the Main Street approach, which includes having a paid director, a board of directors and standing committees working on the four points.

–A sufficient level of local program funding with a minimum of a five-year commitment.

–A commitment to hire a paid director for a minimum of five years. If the population of the community is under 5,000, the program would allow for a part-time director.

Although a minimum funding commitment of five years is required for application, cities are not limited to five years participation in the program, and it should not be seen as a five-year program, according to the memorandum.

Hillsboro would qualify for the Small City Program because the population is less than 5,000.

The estimated minimum annual budget to successfully implement a Small City Program is $25,000, but the exact budget will vary in each community.

“A budget of $25,000 will finance little more than salary and administrative expenses,” according to the memorandum. “Therefore, activities such as promotions, marketing and business recruitment would have to be financed in other ways.”

The program can be funded through memberships, contributions, promotions and city government.

“Dues and memberships are the main fund-raisers,” said Herington Mayor Vance Donahue. “The city also helps with in-kind services, and they pay membership dues, and they also gave about $10,000 this year to help pay the Main Street director’s salary.”

Herington has had Veteran’s Day fund-raisers, Santa’s Workshop, tailgate parties and a city-wide garage sale, and “all that money comes back to the Main Street-Chamber Program,” Mann said.

Donahue said they try to do something every month.

“Some of it is to make money for the program, and some is just to benefit the community.”

Kansas Main Street also offers a program called Incentives Without Walls to help business owners get low-interest loans.

“In 1991, when we first went under the Main Street Program, we went under the IWW program,” Mann said. “This program let business owners get $1,000 to $15,000 as a loan from 0 to 3 percent interest to fix up storefronts.”

One renovated building on West Walnut, owned by Karon Lawrenz, houses Karon’s Real Estate and State Farm Insurance.

“They got a loan of around $10,000 from IWW to redo their building,” Mann said.

The building renovation started in summer 1999 and was completed in February of that year, Lawrenz said.

“It’s been very good, and each year it seems to get a little bit better,” she said.

Main Street is designed to help the downtown, bring people to the business district and encourage a variety of stores, Donahue said.

“I believe in the philosophy if you spend one dollar in town it turns over seven times,” he said.

Mann said, “Business owners can also use the IWW money to expand their line of products.”

Dalke agreed the program is much more than just “fixing up the buildings.”

“That can be a part of it, but it’s whatever your Main Street group makes it out to be to promote your downtown area,” Dalke said.

“McPherson has done it, as well as such towns as Herington, Hutchinson, Overland Park and Neodesha. So you can see it’s a wide variety of communities that can do those things.”

The community of Leavenworth has participated in the program and lists the following benefits on its Web site:

n Visitors observe a sense of pride and vitality that exists in a community with a vibrant downtown.

n An economically viable downtown creates more job opportunities for those living in the community and protects and enhances the local tax base.

–A community’s special assets and heritage are identified and nurtured.

–Preservation of a community’s historic past enhances the image of the community and helps to instill a sense of pride in the local citizens.

–Prospective business and industry clients will look at the vitality of a downtown and the attractiveness of a community.

n Locally owned businesses can experience growth and jobs can be created.

–More visitors are likely to stop in the community and tourism dollars will rise.

–A larger retail/service mix will retain more money, which will be circulated locally.

But even proponents of the Main Street Program say a few failures have occurred along the way.

“There is a consensus that for a local Main Street Program to succeed, the whole community must be ready,” according to information from the Tri-County Chamber of Commerce in Herington.

The Main Street program was studied five years ago in Hillsboro, but nothing was done about it, Dalke said.

“I’m confident that we should be looking into the program to see if we would even be eligible to be accepted,” she said.

“Information should be distributed to the local downtown merchants so that they will know if it’s a program they care to be involved in.”

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