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Archive for Sunday, May 30, 1999

SAVING MAIN STREET A NATIONAL CAMPAIGN

May 30, 1999

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A national program helps cities learn how to advocate for stronger downtowns.

Nationwide, cities are struggling to get what Lawrence already has -- a vibrant downtown.

Over time, many downtowns have fallen victim to urban sprawl and market forces. Now cities are trying to revitalize those areas.

"Downtown is the living room of the community where everyone comes together to socialize," said Staphanie Redman, technical services program manager with the National Main Street Program.

Main Street is a 20-year-old program that works with cities to help them develop their downtowns.

Beyond emotional and historical reasons for reviving downtowns, there are compelling economic reasons, Redman said.

Downtown is one of a city's largest employers and the retail activity adds to the city's tax base.

There is a lot of infrastructure and investment, both government and private, already downtown.

And downtown is an indicator of the health of the community.

"The first place big economic prospects want to visit is downtown," Redman said.

In Kansas, Lawrence was one of the first five communities to take part in the Main Street effort.

Downtown truly is the heart and soul of a community, said Kansas Main Street Coordinator Jeanne Stinson.

But the key to a thriving downtown is the people in the community.

"Success depends on the local commitment and where they want to take their downtown," Stinson said.

In Manhattan, Main Street project manager Scott Morrill said the city's downtown in the mid-1980s qualified as a blighted area by government standards before redevelopment got started.

One of the first steps Main Street recommends is forming a downtown business organization to advocate development and address area concerns.

Then cities must develop a plan that will work for their community because no two downtowns are alike.

For Manhattan that meant building an enclosed shopping mall adjacent to the historic main street.

Manhattan property values have increased 250 percent, and downtown occupancy is now at 91 percent, Morrill said, but there is still much to be done.

"We'd like more entertainment businesses like restaurants and night life," Morrill said.

But there is no easy answer, and cities must make a long-term commitment to the health of their downtowns, Stinson said.

"I have no magic wand," she said. "The magic comes from the people who live and work there ...

"If you don't do it, nobody will."

-- Josh Funk's phone message number is 832-7222. His e-mail address is jfunk@ljworld.com.

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