The Value of Main Street Organizations: New Research from Brookings and the National Main Street Center

Developed in collaboration with the National Main Street Center (NMSC), the Brookings Bass Center for Transformative Placemaking published a new series of research briefs, highlighting the vital role that Main Street programs play in the revitalization of rural downtowns and promoting equitable rural economic and community development. The Brookings Bass Center sought to understand how place-based strategies and supporting place governance structures can spur economic revitalization, build resilience and foster inclusive, vibrant and connected rural places. For them, Main Street organizations represent a clear subtype of place governance organizations that can be critical forces in driving rural resilience. To investigate this theory, in-depth insights were garnered from three Main Street communities between February and March 2020 – Emporia, Kansas; Laramie, Wyoming; and Wheeling, West Virginia.

The research briefs focus on three central questions:

  • Have downtown/Main Street revitalization efforts been successful at enhancing economic, built environment, social and civic outcomes in rural communities?
  • Are pre-pandemic downtown/Main Street revitalization efforts helping rural small businesses more durably weather the COVID-19 crisis now?
  • What further policy and capacity-building supports are needed to ensure Main Streets not only survive the pandemic but can be key drivers of rural recovery and long-term resilience in the months and years to come?

The Brookings Bass Center and NMSC interviewed more than 60 residents, business owners, Main Street staff and other key stakeholders within the aforementioned communities to answer these central questions, convening four focus groups with residents and entrepreneurs. Based on the four pillars of the Brookings Bass Center’s transformative placemaking framework, researchers analyzed respondents’ insights and supplemented qualitative information from the interviews and focus groups with quantitative data gathered from the U.S. Census Bureau, Esri Business Analyst and local data sources. Learn more about the background and context of the research by viewing Brief 1.

Here are the key findings detailed throughout the series:

  • Main Street organizations advance local solutions to help small businesses survive and thrive. Learn more about economic ecosystem outcomes and why rural small businesses need local solutions to survive by viewing Brief 2.
  • Rural resilience leans on a flexible, accessible and healthy built environment. Learn more about the necessary foundations for rural resilience and quality-of-life outcomes by viewing Brief 3.
  • Rural Main Streets can’t achieve inclusive economic revival without bridging social divides in their communities. Learn more about social environment outcomes by viewing Brief 4.
  • Rural communities build resilience through a strong network of community-led civic structures. Learn more about civic outcomes by viewing Brief 5.

View the recent blog post from Main Street America or the full set of briefs for more detailed information on strategies from local leaders to strengthen rural assets, diversity and dynamism, as well as other creative approaches and solutions from the three case study communities that can be adapted and tailored to other rural small towns’ local contexts.