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  • The Four Point Refresh:Improving on Main Street’s Successful Model
  • Hannah White (bio)

The Main Street approach has been a successful model for commercial district revitalization since its beginnings more than 30 years ago. Initially launched in 1977 as a three-year demonstration project by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Main Street initiative sought to explain why so many downtowns were dying—identify the factors affecting downtowns’ health—and to develop a comprehensive revitalization strategy to save historic commercial buildings. After the project’s success, the National Main Street Center (NMSC) was established in 1980 to share the newly created preservation-based revitalization framework throughout the nation. Since then, the center has become an independent subsidiary of the National Trust and continues to thrive. It now leads a network of more than 1,100 Main Street communities and affiliates practicing revitalization at the local level and 45 state-, county- and city-level Coordinating Programs that oversee and provide technical services to those communities. The strength and success of this network is clear: since the program’s beginnings, more than $61 billion has been reinvested into Main Street communities, 120,510 new businesses have opened, and 251,838 buildings have been rehabilitated.

Indeed, what sets the Main Street approach apart from other revitalization efforts is the powerful network: the unique combination of grassroots dedication to comprehensively improving quality of life at the local level; the integral support and expertise provided by Coordinating Programs at the city, county and state levels; and the leadership and direction from the NMSC. By being so responsive to and supportive of local communities for so many years, the Main Street program may be one of the best examples of preservation as a “Movement of Yes.” Changes are now underway to make the program even more effective and accessible. [End Page 29]


From the start, the Four Point Approach has provided the framework for this work, serving to organize the activities of Main Street programs and shape the way they help communities tackle their most challenging revitalization and historic preservation needs. The four main areas of work are Organization, Promotion, Design, and Economic Vitality (formerly called Economic Restructuring).

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  • Organization provides structure to the initiative and establishes consensus and cooperation by building partnerships among the various groups that have a stake in the commercial district.

  • Promotion focuses on creating a positive image, and building excitement for the community.

  • Design aims to get Main Street into top physical shape and create a safe, inviting environment for shoppers, workers and visitors while preserving a place’s historic character.

  • Economic Vitality strengthens the community’s existing economic assets while diversifying its economic base.

Taken together, these four points complement each other, helping Main Street programs leverage local assets and build a sustainable community revitalization effort.


The community development field has changed dramatically over the past three-and-a-half decades. The challenges that must be addressed in downtowns today include meeting demand for affordable housing, promoting transit-oriented development, adapting to climate change, responding to competition from online retailing, and more. Additionally, the demographic make-up of communities is changing. Today, millennials and baby boomers are overwhelmingly choosing to live in urban areas, especially those with vibrant, traditional downtowns, rather than in exurbia.

Some of these challenges and changes call for new planning approaches. Yet, in many ways, new trends in planning, development [End Page 30] and preservation continue to build off principles that those in the Main Street network have long understood: that revitalization must be inclusive and representative of the community, that a place’s distinctive characteristics and historic buildings are its greatest assets, and that fostering a strong local-business environment creates enormous rewards.


To ensure the continued success of the Main Street model in revitalizing older and historic business districts, the NMSC’s board of directors appointed a Four Point Refresh Task Force to oversee the renewal of the center’s signature revitalization framework. The task force is being led by Main Street veteran and NMSC board member Mary Thompson and is working with...


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pp. 29-34
Launched on MUSE
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