Why Main Street is a great career starter for any preservationist

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When I started my preservation career more than 30 years ago, the Main Street movement was in its infancy.  In fact, I went to the third ever National Main Street conference in 1983 and still have the binder full of Xeroxed materials. 

There were not a lot of fancy publications then, but the characteristics of what it takes to be a successful Main Street Manager were beginning to become apparent.

In those ancient days, the Main Street Four Point Approach™ was a new idea designed to comprehensively focus on downtown improvements: 

  1. bring people back downtown through promotions;
  2. organize and raising money for a new nonprofit management organization;
  3. promote quality design, preservation and restoration of downtown buildings, and
  4. understand the current demographics and market of the downtown in order to help existing businesses grow and recruit new ones that would be successful. 

 Little has changed about the comprehensive nature of downtown revitalization.  Yes, we have become more sophisticated and learned about how to compete against big box retailers, other downtowns and lifestyle centers nearby.  We still must create destinations that are clean, safe and interesting places for people to shop and dine.  We do this with usually one staff member, the Main Street manager as our cheerleader, orchestra conductor and guide.

Being a Main Street manager is a great job for a young person right out of school, whether college or graduate school.  No place else will give you direct profit and loss responsibility for a five or six figure organization when you are 22.  Main Street does.  While the manager is not entirely responsible for raising the money to keep the organization afloat (that is the Board of Director’s responsibility--more about that in a blog post soon), the manager must know where every dime goes so that he or she can help balance cash flow over the course of months when revenue is light but expenses heavy. 

Then, as now, managers must be enthusiastic “people” people.  The work of downtown revitalization involves scores of stakeholders from banks, newspapers, big employers, local and county government, big and small merchants and long-term property owners.  You will meet and get to know all of them in less than a few months. 

As a manager, you will need scores if not hundreds of volunteers to get the work done.  The idea is daunting:  managing hundreds of people, yet being a very young person, who perhaps has never supervised anyone before.  You will be responsible for motivating a host of small groups of volunteers to do great things:  plan events that bring in 10,000 people to town or cheering on a new property owner who takes a decaying building and invests hundreds of thousands of dollars to restore it to productive use. These will be the highlights of your job. 

A manager’s job is also filled with routine tasks, and sometimes just plain drudgery. How many managers spend every Thursday morning at 7AM,  come rain or shine, lugging the popup tent to the park for the seasonal Farmers Market?  Hundreds across the country.

But the energy you’ll get from the selfless volunteers is contagious.  You’ll see ordinary people—your volunteers—do extraordinary things.  They will pass laws, paint buildings and clean lots, all because they want their community living room—their downtown—to be better. It is awe inspiring. 

I wish managers were paid more.  Or at least as much as other planning and community development professionals in the area.  No place else gives you the responsibility and opportunity to make such a big difference in a small place like downtown. You will use all of the skills you ever learned from any job, from school, and all in a hurry in downtown.