Leveraging the 21st century for Main Street

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DSCF8412A few weeks ago, the receipt of an email from an acquaintance had me do something I hadn’t considered for at least three years – apply for a position providing a chance to return to the world of economic development – specifically the world of Main Street® – at the state level. If you’re not familiar with the initiative, I’d strongly suggest you click on the link in the last sentence. The picture I chose to use with this post makes a lot of sense – it’s the type of opportunity seen by many,including myself, to be more celebratory than most.

It’s something I hadn’t considered in a while. It’s safe to say I’d let others influence my career path more than I thought possible. It also just wasn’t on my radar screen as I thought I’d already become more of “just a social media guy” in the eyes of many (despite recent plans to reorganize The Terminal suggesting its future lays in explaining how Birmingham, AL and its metro region is evolving instead of just “reporting the facts”). Most of what I do currently revolves around the desire to make a community better – why not “attempt to come out of retirement” and see how far I make it in the process…

A funny thing happens when you start to review your resume in these moments – it helps you realize what you’ve learned and assess the skills you’ve acquired so you’re aware of what they are and how they can be used (and whether or not you’re doing a great job of spelling out these lessons learned). It also helps you see how you may make changes to better the organization. The Main Street Four Point Approach® has been effective for more than thirty years, but it is an approach, a framework – and one that can be tweaked to work for your situation. Two things in particular stood out based on a review of my previous work experience that I think would be essential in approaching that type of job:

The ability to listen – really listen. Everyone approaches covering a news story with one conclusion in mind. The folks who do their job best allow the facts to guide where a piece will take them. Manipulating those facts to fit your own reality does nothing but continue to close yourself off to new ideas and new approaches. It’s a lot easier to listen to the needs of the community and make sure they’re relayed in a way beneficial to everyone invested in the future of a neighborhood. If you’re not listening to your online community or your audience while presenting, it’s as harmful as it would be to never answer your phone. You can’t pretend you’re listening either since there are a lot of people looking to you as part of the solution.

Identifying tools and techniques to use in new ways. Many who enter the world of urban revitalization do so from a position of loving the environment and of wanting to save their community from harmful change. While the experts use five-dollar words, most folks just nod and claim to understand. Many times they haven’t exactly understood the nuts and bolts necessary to do a great job; they’ve also been afraid to ask for help. The job has evolved in recent years to require you be part community organizer/cheerleader, public relations professional, social media expert, urban planner… you get the picture. There are opportunities to leverage some of the digital tools out there to help managers, staff, and volunteers better equipped to tackle the issues at hand, but they can’t be used as a magic wand.

Some of these may become posts unto themselves, but it’s more stream of consciousness at this point:

What if we implemented something like Virtual Alabama, the emergency management tool maintained by the state, with a more accessible public interface? It would allow professionals to log important items like square footage, floor plans, incentives available/used, and business directory information, allowing them to be accessible both by organizations and prospective developers and business owners looking to relocate in a historic or more central business district. It may also make it easier for monthly and quarterly reports to be generated as everyone could be tied into the same system. It would also allow for general information to be shared with news organizations and concerned citizens in a standardized manner.

How about using things like Google+ Hangouts and collaborative management tools like Asana or Dispatch to keep track of what projects were underway across the state? A shared Google document could achieve the same effect – freeing up time for technical assistance staff to reach out to those who need it, while providing encouragement and allowing less frequent visits to those communities not in need of as much direct supervision.

What if we reached outside of the economic development community for basic skills for business management, public relations ,etc., and saved those presentations in a database easily accessible to member organizations and businesses located throughout the state (e.g., YouTube channel)?

How about using the principles of the unconference to determine the needs of the organizations you’re required to serve? In many ways the call for proposals used by many organizations tries to do this, but it can limit the input of those who don’t feel comfortable making a pitch to speak in front of their peers.The traditional unconference approach allows for people to create presentations in advance and suggest them first thing in the morning for attendees to vote them up or down. It would allow for those who aren’t familiar with architectural or financial terms or practices to get a chance to receive an overview from those committed to the process – groups that aren’t always thought of as possible attendees at the state level. We could always give attendees a chance to vote on what topics interest them in advance (like this popular festival does – scroll down to the history to learn how it works)?

Like I said, the list of suggestions above don’t replace the need to sit down and talk with business owners and other necessary partners, but they might help make it easier to prioritize how and when those meetings need to take place. The beauty of programs like Main Street® is their ability to create a unique sense of place and their power to engage communities driven to bring or maintain their intrinsic values.

There has been a great deal of discussion online in recent weeks about whether or not Main Streets as a concept needs to continue to exist nationally (and whether or not we’re asking the right questions with regard to that statement). I’d argue it’s probably a case of reminding people of the nuances that attracted them to move or stay where they are to begin with – and whether or not they’re finally ready to share those secrets with the rest of the world.

Can we move forward while honoring the past or continue to remain mired in it? The answer to this question most likely holds the key to the future of the Main Street movement and urban revitalization as a whole.

Will I get the opportunity to interview for the position? I have no idea. What I do know now is how I can take all of my experiences culled in recent years to best serve the assignments and projects on my plate now. If it’s not meant to be but the itch to return to the world of economic development reappears, at least I know I’m capable of the job at hand.

Plus, it’s given me an excuse to write this post, hasn’t it? Maybe I’ll get a chance to meet some other folks interested in fleshing these thoughts out and seeing what else is possible…

Or maybe you’ll add your thoughts in the comments section?

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