The Kansas Main Street program is dead, but its website lives on.
On that website, the program is lauded for more than 25 years of service providing training, consultation, business enhancement strategies and financial incentives to Kansas communities. It recognizes the pivotal role of a city’s central business district, which not only provides up to 30 percent of a town’s jobs and 40 percent of its tax base, but serves as the heart of the community. The reason the Main Street program works better than many other revitalization programs, it says, is because it deals with “the full spectrum of interrelated issues that affect traditional commercial districts.”
Unfortunately, a new message at the top of the Kansas Main Street home page announces that the 2012 state conference scheduled for later this month in Emporia has been canceled. There is no notice of the broader decision of the Kansas Department of Commerce to lay off 18 people and discontinue the Main Street program as part of its departmental restructuring.
The decision brings an end to a program that reportedly provided significant support to 25 mid-sized Kansas communities. Marci Penner, director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation, is familiar with all of those towns and told the Hays Daily News that when she traveled the state she usually can tell which ones are affiliated with Main Street just by the attractiveness and vitality of their downtowns. The program, she said, provided practical training and other support to downtown business districts.
One of the programs that will be missed the most, according to news reports, is “Incentives Without Walls,” which supplied zero-interest loans to help businesses with specific projects. The money was matched by local communities and, when the loan was repaid, the funding was used to make loans to other cities.
Officials in the state’s Main Street communities were stunned by the Commerce announcement, which came less than a month before their annual conference and with about three hours notice, rather than the usual 60 days. Apparently, as seems to be the custom with the Brownback administration, the Main Street decision was made without consulting with any of the local communities involved and with little planning for how Main Street programs might be maintained.
In making the announcement last month, Commerce Secretary Pat George said, “I believe we can achieve our goal of helping revitalize downtown areas using other resources available … ,” but no details about those plans have been made public. Asked specifically about the Incentives Without Walls program, Commerce officials said the department is looking at options to replace the program but couldn’t comment on the details.
The governor has spoken repeatedly about his desire to support both business and rural communities in Kansas. The Kansas Main Street program seemed to fill both of those needs. It’s hard to understand why it has been tossed out.