Blog Viewer

Letter from the President - White House Convening on Rural Placemaking


Dear Main Street America Members,

Happy Holiday Season! All of us at the National Main Street Center are thankful to you, our members, for your passion and commitment to creating more prosperous and engaged downtowns and neighborhood commercial districts, and your participation in this dynamic network of professionals dedicated to creating healthier communities.

It’s been a very busy autumn at the National Main Street Center, with the launch of our the beta version of the refresh of the Main Street Approach, the introduction of the new Main Street America brand and the launch of the new Main Street America Institute, with classes beginning in January. 

The week before last, we capped off our eventful fall with NMSC’s co-sponsorship of the first White House Convening on Rural Placemaking in partnership with the White House Rural Council and the Project for Public Spaces. This convening brought together federal agencies, national organizations, philanthropic foundations, and Placemaking and Main Street professionals interested in leveraging their resources to help rural communities realize the economic and social benefits of Placemaking.

A special thank you to Joe Borgstrom of the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, Mary Helmer of Main Street Alabama, Gayla Roten of Missouri Main Street Connection, and Mickey Howley of Water Valley Main Street (Mississippi),  for bringing eloquence and passion in sharing their good work with the attendees. Their experiences, stories, and suggestions elevated the discourse and exposed a new set of potential partners to the strength of Main Street in communities across the country. (Check out Mickey’s thoughtful remarks on how small investments in Main Street can have a significant, catalytic impact on Main Street.)

Mickey Howley, Water Valley Main Street Manager delivers his remarks; (L to R) Howley, John Poros, Mississippi State University’s Carl Small Town Center Director, Tim Lampkin, Lampkin Consulting Group, and Patrice Frey, NMSC President and CEO, present on local and state perspectives during the convening.

Rural downtowns face significant challenges—shifting demographics, including population and job loss, and increased competition on Main Street from online retail and big box stores—just to name a few.  But in my travel visiting dozens of Main Streets these last two and half years, I’ve seen a different story: residents who are committed to creating a prosperous downtown, including millennials and boomers who are moving back to America’s small towns, fueling mini housing booms downtown, investing in their communities, opening new businesses and creating jobs.  Small town residents—whether millennials, boomers or anything in between, crave that sense of place and sense of connectedness that is offered by small town America.

Our convening at the White House was designed to help illuminate how Placemaking—“employing lighter, quicker and cheaper” strategies to activate and attract people to public spaces—offers communities a shortcut to creating this sense of place, and intensifying this sense of connectedness. And it also highlighted how Placemaking also paves the path to real economic transformation on Main Street.

One of the key things we all understand as Main Streeters is that the transformation of downtowns is incremental—real investment, real businesses, and real jobs aren’t created overnight. It takes sustained efforts and persistence over time. But we Main Streeters also know that incremental change is a tricky thing; it can be all too easy for community members—or even a Main Street Director—to lose heart midway through the process, when achieving end goals seems very far away.

That’s where Placemaking can be so effective; it helps all of us create an early and continuous sense of momentum and progress downtown. In fact the brilliance of Placemaking is it’s focused on the immediate, and it’s focused on the possible.  It empowers communities to move beyond what they might think of as their boundaries, and to chock up short term wins in the form of renewed community engagement, activated public spaces, and just plain fun downtown. 

Several key themes and takeaways came out of our convening, and we are working with the White House and our partners at PPS over the coming weeks to explore some potential action items, including:

  • Work to build local capacity and partnerships by connecting federal resources and technical assistance tools to local community leaders, and identifying intermediary organizations to help provide resources to rural America to more fully engage in Placemaking.
  • Support the federal government’s efforts to prioritize place-based work—support and enhance existing federal efforts to provide peacemaking training to key agency officials on the value of place-based, “lighter, quicker and cheaper work.” Support federal efforts to provide priority consideration for projects that are crafted through intensive community engagement, and reflect the community’s vision and goals.
  • Share our stories.  A key theme of the convening was the importance of hearing directly from local community leaders and members about the ways in which Placemaking has helped galvanize change downtown, and creating more connected and vibrant communities.
  • Establish a collaborative peer-sharing network so we can learn of and from each other’s efforts, challenges, success stories, and best practices.

Moving forward, NMSC will play a lead role in continuing these conversations and working to implement the work outlined during the convening. We look forward to sharing this ongoing work.

If you would like to read more about the day, please see the presentation slides, and the full takeaways and themes document. Additionally, our partners at Project for Public Spaces created a fun Storify piece covering the convening, which you can see here.

Warm Regards,

Patrice Frey
President and CEO, National Main Street Center