What I learned at the National Main Street Conference 2016

By Jim Guthrie

 (Covington needs more  more murals and art )

 (Covington needs more more murals and art)

I had the pleasure of going to Milwaukee to attend the National Main Street Conference with Renaissance Covington a few weeks ago, where we were awarded one of the “Main Streets to Watch” award. I’m pretty damn passionate about creative placemaking, and I want to share what I learned at the conference. So, here it is:

I learned people are getting pretty creative with finding funds in an era of dwindling government support. There’s lots of discussion on whether this is good (yay we found some money!) or bad (hey, why don’t our taxes pay for this?), but the methods are out there and working. Crowdfunding, as it’s widely known as, comes in many forms. One form is Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), whether sanctioned as a tax or private as a group of businesses. Renaissance is no stranger to crowdfunding as we do it for most of our events. We’ve found there are a number of individuals and organizations that understand our mission, have faith in our ability to improve the community, and are willing to support our efforts financially. It’s a form of crowdfunding. The interesting thing I came away with was the development potential of crowdfunding. Under the new JOBS Act, like minded individuals can come together and buy a building or support a business with their investment and gain a stronger community, but also a share in the enterprise. If you want a small grocery in your community, fund one. If you want another community garden, start one. If you want a brewery, too bad, Braxton beat you to it.

(Sidewalk Twister could help break up long blocks)

(Sidewalk Twister could help break up long blocks)

There was a session on guaranteed success obtaining sponsorships. My big take away here was it takes the right sales personality to sell. The presenter had it. I couldn’t imagine saying no to her, I’m glad she didn’t ask for money. But another take away was to understand your value as an organization or event. Don’t put yourself in a position of begging. Have confidence. You’re offering an opportunity that has value. Understand what the sponsor values. Partner with organizations and businesses that are aligned with your mission and values. The presenter went through the process of the sale step by step. It was interesting, but I was keeping my head down.

 (Use water activated paint, to send messages when it rains)

 (Use water activated paint, to send messages when it rains)

I learned about “the Spot” in Milwaukee. Pretty much the same thing as our Madlot. Even down to a new development coming in and erasing it. But the quote of the session was that “the culture of creative placemaking is permanent and not tied to a particular place.” This culture is enthusiastic in our community and new Madlots will continue to inspire and drive development. Over and over.

I learned I need to re-read Christopher Alexander’s “A Pattern Language” again. One of those books you read as a 19 year old in college out of obligation, but no sense of its application through experience. I was reminded that cities are social forms more than built forms. I was reminded about the importance of connecting places for the pedestrian, creating short blocks, activating dead spaces or buildings with limited activity at the street levels and the opportunity represented in side streets and alleys. I learned about the importance of observing communities and understanding what they are before you start. Making projects led by place and not the project.

I was blown away by the opportunities of gathering and applying data to our communities through GIS mapping. Quantifying and qualifying decisions based on data. Creating a cloud based social and collaborative enterprise in collecting the data and defining our communities. I’m not a data guy though, so I might have glazed over a bit. But I could tell the potential was limitless.

I learned about the importance of maintaining strong relationships with city government and staff. City managers and commissioners have a lot of constituencies. All of which are competing for money and attention. Our main streets are an essential service. The quality of our main streets impacts our quality of life and the quality of our city. Renaissance “left” the city offices, but we’re still working on the same goals. Partnership with the city is unavoidable and mutually beneficial.

I learned the similarities between dating and volunteer organizations. It’s generally bad form to ask someone to be a board member right off the bat, it would be like asking them to marry you. Better to ask them out for coffee first. But too often our organizational relationships aren’t grown incrementally. We’re going for marriage right away. Similarly we often aren’t very good at specific role definition. “Would you like to join a committee” might be akin to “let’s share an apartment”. What’s the end game? How do you escape? There’s comfort in specificity. There’s generally a pyramidal structure in volunteers, starting with observers at the base and patrons at the top. There are generally lots of observers, but only a few will become patrons. I also learned the value of gratitude. Thank people. Privately. Publicly. Frequently.

I learned about the variety of property owners one may encounter in the city. The people that get it. The people that don’t. The people that are privileged and you gotta know people. The people that have been “screwed over so many times” they’ll never participate. The people that feel like all the Main Streeters and their stupid events don’t know the first thing about what it takes to maintain a building and attract paying tenants. Developers that are accustomed to the adversarial game of development. Basically, redevelopment starts with the friendlies. The folks that get it. Whether they’re new owners or have been around awhile, they’re low fruit. The last guy on the bandwagon will have been the biggest pain in your ass. That’s ok. They’ll come around. Don’t sweat it at the beginning. Make it easy for them. Don’t restrict development with too many design controls. Might sound strange coming from an architect, but I hate design controls. Have a long term value vision. Promote uses that activate the street and create an 18 hour district. Educate owners as to how that benefits them through increased property values and rents.

My big take away from all this is that Renaissance Covington is already doing a lot of these things. It’s great to be part of such a progressive organization. Especially one that is asked to present at the National Conference level pretty consistently and one that is now recognized as a “Main Street to Watch”. I learned what it takes to be a “Great American Main Street” and I recognized a lot of it already going on in Covington

Which of these cool ideas would you like to see come to Covington? Where would you like to see it? Let’s talk about it.