An Interview with Mary Means, Main Street Movement Pioneer

Women in Planning – Part VII

by Victoria Olivier, AICP, Regional Planner and Kristen Humphrey, MLA, Local Assistance and Training Planner

Urban renewal, migration from our towns and smaller cities to larger, more metropolitan areas, and attendant growth of suburbs, have created the now familiar contours of disinvestment, abandonment, and decay in towns across the U.S. This trend began as a result of rapid industrialization in the face of two World Wars, accelerating by the mid-20th century, and in some areas continues to this day.

Thus, when urban renewal resulted in tearing down entire blocks within town centers, and shopping centers were luring both stores and shoppers to follow them to the suburbs, it began to look as though small towns would simply fade away. The downward slide of traditional town centers was gradual but steady, and town leaders had little information about how to fight back.

Not content to let the fabric of our town centers crumble unchecked, planner Mary Means began a response-turned-planning-movement (if not revolution) that has done a remarkable job in countering these forces through what has become known as the “Main Street Approach” to community revitalization.

As a consultant for 30+ years, Means has worked across the country helping communities sustain and diversify their traditional economies by capitalizing on cultural, scenic, recreational and heritage resources, and leading complex planning processes.

Notable among these efforts was her participation in the New Orleans master plan following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Recently, Means’ impressive career was recognized by the American Planning Association with its 2019 Planning Pioneer Award.

Without a doubt, pioneering the Main Street Approach is one of her seminal achievements. It began in 1977 when she was the director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Midwest office. It started as a three-town pilot project in Galesburg, Illinois, Madison, Indiana, and Hot Springs, South Dakota, to give towns a way of bringing renewed life back to their centers. Means and her team took it to scale nationally in 1980, and it is still going strong forty years later. Today the National Main Street Center, a national non-profit organization, runs the Main Street America program, now with 39 states involved (including Maryland) and some 1,600 towns and urban neighborhood districts across the country.

The approach itself is a holistic one, coupling historic preservation and economic development into a program that provides not just a framework for saving traditional town centers or main streets, but also lends renewed optimism to stressed and beleaguered communities.

There are four main points to the Main Street Approach, as illustrated above, but an unwritten and essential “fifth point” is the presence of a trained, energetic “Main Street Manager” whose job it is to orchestrate the many volunteers that are key to revitalization success (see Figure 2 and side bar, above). It is a beautiful marriage of common sense and innovation which has now taken hold across the country.

Every community and commercial district is different, with its own distinctive assets and sense of place. The Main Street Approach offers community-based revitalization initiatives with a practical, adaptable framework for downtown transformation that is easily tailored to local conditions. The Main Street Approach helps communities get started with revitalization and grows with them over time.[1]

As described by Main Street America: “Every community and commercial district is different, with its own distinctive assets and sense of place. The Main Street Approach offers community-based revitalization initiatives with a practical, adaptable framework for downtown transformation that is easily tailored to local conditions. The Main Street Approach helps communities get started with revitalization and grows with them over time.”[1]

In October, I “sat down” via videoconference with Mary Means to take advantage of her expertise and garner some of her wisdom for Maryland. I was especially excited to discuss her new book, Main Street’s Comeback and How It Can Come Back Again (which will soon grace bookstores everywhere!).

Our conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

Your book had been started well before the pandemic, what inspired you to write it, and how did it evolve after COVID-19?

I’d been thinking of doing a book for years, but what inspired me to begin, was seeing the short video made for the 2019 APA awards luncheon. The final image was of Main Street’s cumulative economic impact: $76 billion in reinvestment; thousands of buildings renovated; thousands of new businesses and new jobs – I honestly had NO IDEA what an impact it had had.

So, I started working on the book right away. It was an amazing and moving success story. I was at the closing chapter, the “Future of Main Street” unpacking the (now) $84 billion in investment it has generated – when the pandemic hit. I knew I couldn’t just end the book before the shutdown, but what to do? What could one say about the future now?

Finally, I realized that, although this pandemic is an existential crisis, main streets have come through several existential crises – the Great Depression, for one. And the spread of shopping centers. Despite this, Main Street has kept chugging along, adapting even with Amazon on the scene. Who would ever have thought department stores would be dying – and that was before the pandemic? I realized I needed to revise the whole book to address the next reinvention. The toughest hurdle, the gutsiest move I had to make, was that I couldn’t just wait to see what would happen in another year; it needed to get out there now.

Main Street has mostly flown under the radar of the economic development world – it even flew under mine! Yet the fine impact studies by experts like Place Economics make an ironclad case for what Ed McMahon of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) calls “the most successful economic development program in the country.” These studies were a huge resource while writing the book. Main Street [the organization] has been credited with helping to save the Federal Historic Preservation tax credit several times. Now it is leading a coalition that is lobbying to include funding for the network of state and local Main Street organizations in pandemic relief bills. This network is a vital resource for helping small businesses.

For there to be successful post-pandemic recovery, it has to include more than individual small businesses. Main Street will play an important role. It has the benefit of being an in-place network and system at a very local level that people trust. Currently no Main Street state has fewer than 15 designated Main Street communities. Some have nearly 80 communities enrolled. There is an infrastructure of trust and strength and support. If there is going to be regeneration – and I’m confident there is – someone [like Main Street and its proponents] is needed to help fill the vacancies.

The book’s title leads me to believe that the content will be highly relevant to addressing COVID-19 and the economic fallout of a number of issues. What are the “back to basics” that will help us prepare for the new approaches that might be necessary? 

In many cases, the work of the Main Street manager has been – rightly – so focused on working with businesses and keeping them going, that they may have lost connection with the larger community. A community’s main street is an image that readily pops into people’s minds – it is the center, the heart and soul, of a community, so Main Street managers and planners at all levels need to be reaching out and bolstering, re-strengthening connections. The responsibility belongs to the whole community to keep a healthy town center going, but sometimes we need to be reminded of that. 

One thing that makes main streets unique are that they bring planners, preservationists, and the economic development community together. What do you wish planners better understood when it comes to their unique role in supporting them?

Planners and local governments can help with making those connections to the broader community. Leveraging experience with community planning, they can help facilitate the answers to addressing post-pandemic questions: “What do we want coming out of this? What would we most grieve if we were to lose it? How do we want to grow, or be better?”

Planners can also help connect the community’s vision with policies and regulations. For example, if the upper stories of businesses are vacant and additional housing is needed, they should make sure zoning supports it. Once you establish the vision make sure you are addressing/removing the barriers to that vision:

  • Keep an eye on future implications. During economic downturns big developers can see opportunities in buying up failed commercial sites. However, it’s not going to help downtown if local governments continue to support sprawling retail. To tackle this problem, some communities have passed ordinances that prohibit “formula buildings/businesses.” Even with financial stresses, it’s still important to pay attention to leveling the playing field. 
  • Enable Creativity. The phrase “you shouldn’t waste a good crisis” comes to mind. I lived in Old Town Alexandria for 25 years and was amazed to see how quickly the city had responded by setting aside parking spaces for outdoor dining. In the past there was typically protracted pushback against any change. Cities and towns need to continue doing these types of things in the future to support businesses and create dynamic areas. 
  • Support Sustainability. We need to protect our planet – we need to act now – and acting locally as well as nationally is important. 

When Tupelo MS won a national Main Street award, they emphasized their main street belongs to all its citizens. With concerns about physical and cultural displacement that can come with new investment, how can we be intentional about baking equity into the visioning and implementation process?

A Main Street organization can’t do it all. But they can reach out to organizations that are dealing with reconciliation and accountability with law enforcement, and partner with entrepreneurship initiatives that support minority owned businesses. We must partner creatively on ways to come together. We must keep in mind minority businesses have been clobbered by this pandemic and were not well represented in the initial Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) distribution. We need to have many races and cultures represented and participating to make sure everyone has a stake and feels valued.

Do you have any favorite Main Street communities in Maryland? Or best practices that you’d like to highlight? 

  • Cambridge – I was fortunate to work on the plan for the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway which reveals a vital history. Also, the downtown is a gem that is taking off! 
  • Havre de Grace – I love kayaking from there! Another downtown that has really taken off, and they have great public spaces. 

What do you see as the differences between working on urban main streets and more rural communities, and how does the four-point approach differ?

When I left the Main Street in the mid-80s, I wanted to study whether the four-point approach could be fine-tuned or adapted for urban areas. There are some big differences. Cities are more complicated politically. One needs to build relationships between business corridors and the leadership at large. Also, socioeconomic issues are generally magnified, as are the safety challenges.

There needs to be an added emphasis on sociological dimensions. Now the National Main Street Center has a program called “UrbanMain” working in under-invested corridors across the country. Another aspect is there are usually many “main streets” in a city and there can be tension if one is selected as an “official Main Street,” and another isn’t. There are great examples like Boston that have really taken off…they have twenty Main Street organizations there! 

Looking back, a theme runs throughout my professional life: making connections—or as I used to describe the work of my small but mighty planning firm, “building bridges between plans and people.” For it is only through people finding relevance in preservation that the movement will be sustained, not to mention to grow and widen.

Mary Means, 2011

Now you are in a position to reflect upon your career, what advice do you have for younger planners who ‘wake up with a great idea’ that could really have a big impact on an issue they care about? 

It’s true I woke up with the idea, but what had been building up to it was thinking about, observing a problem or issue that was unique to a particular place/setting versus whether it was systemic. When it’s systemic, one needs to look for broader solutions. So, I started poking around: maybe the retail merchants’ association is doing something…? Maybe this group is addressing it…? But no such luck. Yes, there was a systemic issue of “main streets are dying,” and what we needed were models to address it. 

Thus, if you can identify that the problem is bigger than any of the known solutions that are out there, it makes sense to pursue it. (When you’re young, you don’t always know it’s a risk!) We took three towns and documented what we were doing. We wrote a book, held conferences, made a movie. You have to plan ahead to prove the impact of your efforts! Be determined to make it happen.

The most exciting part about recently getting the National Trust’s Crowninshield Award [the highest honor in preservation] is that it acknowledges that the Main Street movement is historic preservation, and that historic preservation has been changed by the movement. When I started out, it wasn’t seen as such. So, if you are in an institution that doesn’t welcome change (very few do!) build allies, and foster fellowship. It helps if you are really young and naive and less likely to listen to people who say “that’s never going to work.” Serendipity helps, too! 


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