The Importance of Main Street Revitalization

For the many small towns and villages across America’s heartland, long-term economic and population decline has put their very future at risk. As rural areas have hemorrhaged jobs, businesses, and residents over the last decade, too many communities have found themselves trapped in a doom loop of dwindling tax bases, deteriorating infrastructure, and few prospects for investment or growth. However, all is not lost—innovative local programming rooted in cultivating vibrant main street districts is proving to be a catalytic path to rural revitalization.

Tapping into Local Identity for Community Experiences

The key is tapping into a town’s unique identity and assets to create community experiences and positive shared memories that draw both residents and visitors downtown. A flourishing main street corridor with a healthy mix of local businesses, restaurants, public spaces, and cultural attractions gives citizens a strengthened sense of pride and attachment to their hometown. This concentrated activity and sustained foot traffic is also critically important for stimulating economic opportunity and development.

Downtowns are the heart and soul of any community. By programming main streets as centers of experience and activity, it reinforces their role as the gathering place that brings people together. This fostering of connectedness and socialization is vital for small towns aiming to create an enhanced quality of life that attracts and retains residents of all ages.

The Economic Impact of Main Street Programs

Source: Main Street America, Collective Impact

Research has consistently shown the economic development potential of robust main street programs. In 2023 alone, Main Street America’s initiatives generated a remarkable $5.68 billion in local reinvestment into downtowns and commercial corridors. Their efforts helped open the doors for 6,630 new businesses while facilitating the creation of 35,162 new jobs. Perhaps most impressively, these programs catalyzed the rehabilitation and preservation of 10,556 historic buildings that may have otherwise fallen into disrepair.

This success was driven in large part by the 1,664,763 volunteer hours donated by passionate community members. Their commitment to revitalizing main streets yielded immense returns – for every $1 invested into operating a local Main Street program, $18.03 of new private and public investment poured back into that community’s downtown district and surrounding commercial areas. The numbers underscore the economic power of these place-based strategies that leverage a town’s unique assets and identity to create vibrant main street destinations.

Main Street Programming Strategies

Main Street America’s strategic approach centers on impactful programming that creates compelling reasons for both locals and visitors to come downtown and linger. Organizing regular events like outdoor movies, concerts, art walks, historic building tours, and food truck festivals generates consistent foot traffic year-round.

Physical improvements to the streetscape like decorative lighting, landscaping and public art installations enhance the pedestrian environment. Converting abandoned lots into pocket parks with seating and landscaping activates underutilized spaces. Facade grants help fund exterior renovations for aging buildings.

Most importantly, these programs facilitate the opening of new downtown businesses and amenities like bakeries, farm-to-table restaurants, craft breweries, art galleries, and coworking spaces that give people active third places to gather beyond just home and work. Multi-purpose trails link main streets to recreational amenities like parks.

The Importance of Placemaking

This kind of strategic placemaking and giving people reasons to congregate is so vital because it rebuilds the intangible assets of community character, pride, and social cohesion that are too often decimated during periods of rural decline and disinvestment. By creating positive community experiences and new shared memories, it nurtures an emotional sense of place and belonging that makes people want to stay local rather than traveling elsewhere for amenities.

Source: Paxton Main Street; Paxton’s Fall Gathering and Vendor Show in Paxton, Illinois

Additionally, main street programs can serve as a centralized resource where small businesses and entrepreneurs can access a comprehensive suite of support services, training, financing options and other growth resources. This concentrated delivery of business assistance programming streamlines access and increases utilization compared to fragmented resources spread across different organizations.

Small Business Hubs

A core tenet of our Economic Impact Catalyst model is fostering a robust ecosystem where local businesses can easily connect, collaborate and support one another’s growth. To that end, many of our clients have created comprehensive small business directories that map and provide contact information for all the diverse entrepreneurs and offerings located within their main street districts.

These directories go beyond just listing businesses—they enable merchants to find complementary services they can cross-promote, identify potential supplier relationships, coordinate joint marketing efforts, and organize community events and initiatives that drive customer traffic. By making their local business community more visible and interconnected, the directories can catalyze increased economic activity within the main street corridor.

Similarly to main street programs, we’ve also seen significant impact from clients establishing physical small business resource hubs in their communities. These one-stop spaces provide entrepreneurs with a “no wrong doors” suite of support services, training opportunities, financing assistance, and professional expertise—all under one roof.

By co-locating resources like coworking spaces, business advisors, lenders, marketing experts, legal assistance and more, these hubs remove barriers to growth by streamlining access to the fragmented resources and knowledge entrepreneurs need. This concentrated delivery of programming increases utilization rates compared to having disparate resources spread across different organizations and locations. The hubs foster peer-to-peer relationships, nurture a sense of entrepreneurial community, and establish main streets as the concentrated nucleus for local business activity and economic opportunity. This centralized approach provides an environment where businesses at any stage can receive strategic guidance while fueling downtown’s revival as an economic catalyst.

Source: Elevate CCIC, Inc. in Mattoon, Illinois

Market research is also vital for main street organizations to truly understand the unique challenges, gaps and opportunities facing the small businesses and entrepreneurs within their specific community. Conducting surveys, focus groups, and data analysis allows them to design targeted interventions, business assistance curriculum, and placemaking strategies that directly address localized pain points and obstacles to growth. This localized expertise ensures programming accomplishes realistic impacts rather than generic one-size-fits-all approaches.

Main Streets as Economic Catalysts

By strategically cultivating vibrant main street districts as economic anchors while delivering focused support for homegrown entrepreneurs, these comprehensive community revitalization efforts catalyze a diverse ecosystem of local enterprise that uplifts the entire economic trajectory. Thriving main streets act as potent economic catalysts, rippling positive impacts throughout the community. By concentrating investment, activity and foot traffic into a centralized district, main street revitalization spurs private sector growth and development that radiates outward. A flourishing local business mix—from the coffee shop to the manufacturer—generates increased sales that drive more tax revenue to improve municipal services. As downtowns become desirable places to locate businesses and live, property values rise. This localized economic energy helps attract and retain residents along with new investment. Through placemaking and focused small business support, vibrant main streets create a self-sustaining cycle of opportunity, atmosphere and prosperity.

Challenges of Main Street Revitalization

Of course, achieving successful main street revitalization isn’t easy. Securing adequate and consistent funding sources is always an uphill battle, as is recruiting and retaining dedicated volunteers to power programming with their time and passion. Even with financial and human resources, political inertia and bureaucratic red tape can stall initiatives. Development hurdles like navigating zoning regulations, historic preservation rules, site assemble issues, and more can also add complexities. Perhaps most importantly, corralling true buy-in and marshaling collective community willpower behind a shared revitalization vision is difficult but necessary. Overcoming these hurdles demands long-term commitment over many years.

The challenges are even more daunting for remote rural areas. They often face diminished financial resources, budget constraints, and lack of access to funding compared to their larger MSA-adjacent counterparts. This makes bootstrapping robust, comprehensive main street programs extremely difficult without getting creative on shoestring budgets. Limited staffing capacities and expertise further compounds the burden on volunteers.

However, success stories from resilient communities show that with the right mix of strategic vision, local grassroots initiative, coordination between public and private sector stakeholders, and unwavering persistence from committed residents, main street revitalization can be achieved. No matter the obstacles, the bottom line is that people intrinsically want reasons to come downtown and feel an authentic sense of community pride and attachment to their town again. If collaborators can create an engaging experience of place through placemaking, events programming, and fostering a critical mass of destinations, it taps into people’s deep desire for belonging.

This emotional connection and positive shared memories are powerful catalysts. Once people get excited about the resurgence of their main street district as a vibrant hub of community activity and economic opportunity, it creates incredible momentum. Involvement and investment from residents and businesses will steadily increase. Energy and optimism will be renewed. Progress starts compounding into more progress. What started as an uphill battle eventually crests and becomes a self-perpetuating cycle of revitalization as long as commitment persists. The key is giving people compelling reasons to experience the joy of their main street again.

A Manifestation of Community Identity

That’s the powerful economic promise of an engaged main street program – it becomes a tangible manifestation of a community’s identity, perseverance and aspirations for prosperity. When people see reinvestment happening, they want to be part of it too. Main streets turn into the rallying point for civic pride and the efforts of passionate locals committed to writing their hometown’s next chapter of growth.

With rural America facing immense challenges, success stories of main street revitalization illuminate a path forward for community survival and revival. By strategically programming for activity, human experiences, and connectedness, even the smallest towns can rekindle economic opportunity and an enduring sense of place.

About EIC

At Economic Impact Catalyst, our mission is to activate a world where there is equitable and inclusive access to entrepreneurship. We believe that entrepreneurship is the key to equitable and inclusive economic development. Our team’s main focus every day is to make it easier for founders to launch businesses in order to create wealth for themselves, for their teams, and for their communities. To learn more about our technology and market research solutions, built exclusively to catalyze entrepreneurship-led economic development efforts, book a call with us today.


McKenzie joined Economic Impact Catalyst in 2018 and currently leads operations and human resources. Earlier in her career, she worked within the local college system, developing a strong capacity for breaking down complex concepts for diverse learning needs and audiences. Her time teaching honed vital skills in empathy, communication, and understanding varied perspectives— talents that translate seamlessly to managing multifaceted projects. She is a member of the advisory board for Paxton Main Street, a nonprofit driving economic growth and historic preservation in Paxton, Illinois, where she currently resides.