Rick received his Master of Architecture from the University of Virginia in 1995, and worked for several architectural offices in Charlottesville, VA, before locating in western NY near his wife’s dairy farm. There he worked independently and as project architect with a Rochester, NY office prior to starting I.S:A in early 2001. He has taught at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and is the founder and manager of Perry New York LLC.
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Any farmer or gardener will tell you, the success of the crop depends upon good planning, creating the proper environmental conditions, and preparing the ground. These same rules of thumb apply to the realm of downtown revitalization. If you are considering how to plant the seeds of a Main Street renaissance in your community (and you don’t mind overextended agriculture metaphors), you would do well to heed the following fundamental insights:
1. It’s no use cultivating the ground if the environmental conditions are not met. The seeds won’t germinate. It’s that simple. And while in the field or garden you need the proper Temperature, Moisture and Soil conditions, I’ll suggest three environmental factors needed to get anywhere in the Revitalization process: Unity. Empowerment. Self-reliance.
- Unity because Main Street is a point around which the whole comm-unity can rally. Downtown is not the sum total of a town’s success. But it is a visible barometer of economic health, a symbol of your city or village’s momentum, a recruitment and retention tool, and a new business incubator. Not everyone intuitively sees this. So your first job is to build unity around these ideas. Your Council members, your Town Board, your Planning Board must be involved. Your business owners and building owners – from downtown and beyond – must be involved. Your employees and employers, Village or City residents, Town and seasonal residents must be involved. Otherwise you have at best a limited constituency and limited effectiveness; at worst you have factionalization, marginalization and failure. You must cultivate Unity.
- Empowerment because the basis for success in our small communities is an example of that simple phenomenon: A citizen – with an idea and a willingness to work on it – shares it with a receptive group, where he can get the tools, guidelines, contacts and assistance he requires. There are plenty of ideas with no one willing to act. And there may be people willing to act but with no constructive way of doing so, or no sense of where to start. Any revitalization group is – first and foremost – an empowerment coalition. You must cultivate a spirit of Empowerment.
- And, Self-Reliance, because every initiative underway must have this common theme – the belief that we can do it. That we do have the resources to accomplish many great things and to revitalize our Main Street district. That we have all the raw ingredients – the infrastructure, the history, the setting, the community spirit, the motivated citizens, the business commitment, the government support, and when the idea is right, the money to invest. It has certainly been my experience over the past fifteen years that community confidence is amplified when we claim ownership of our downtown. You must cultivate Self-Reliance.
2. You don’t plant the seeds until you’ve cultivated the ground. The first impulse of the revitalization-minded is often to gather together a large group of citizens and stakeholders and share a vision for the future. This is precisely wrong for the same reason you don’t poke seeds into crusty, rocky, weedy unprepared earth. Before going “public” comes the long, quiet process of cultivating those same citizens and stakeholders one at a time. Listen a lot, talk a little. Draw people into the process early. Adopt or adapt ideas and promise opportunities for involvement and change. By the time you call the public meeting to plant the seeds of revitalization proposals, you’ll have 40-70 owners, citizens and officials for whom revitalization istheir idea. The initiatives you enumerate will become their initiatives and any organization you propose will be their organization.
3. You won’t bear fruit until you’ve nurtured the seedlings. Even with nurturing, some will thrive based on local factors, and others will need to be “thinned out”. With revitalization, I’ve found that it is healthier to plant many seeds and cultivate many partners in the community. You then watch closely and invest your energies working with those partners who are truly committed and capable.
4. Address the weeds early on. Like weeds in a recently cultivated field, cynics in the community emerge quickly, before new ideas are fully able to fend for themselves. If not planned for they will choke out the revitalization effort. So, choose initiatives that will be tough enough to survive. Don’t allow a mood of cynicism to gain a foothold in your revitalization efforts. By identifying valid criticism quietly, during the planning stages, you can understand underlying motivations and address them.
But in the final analysis the only way to deal with persistent doubt is by Doing. Success neutralizes lingering cynicism. And an early, patient effort at preparing the ground and sowing the seeds for downtown revitalization gives you the best odds of success.