We traveled to the United Kingdom for three weeks in June to study the British High Street, the counterpart to the American Main Street. We visited with town leaders, learned new strategies for building thriving downtowns, and observed firsthand thriving town centers (the British counterpart to “downtown”) in England and Wales, including winners of and runners-up for the Great British High Street Awards. Thanks to the generous spirit and collegiality of High Street leaders and business owners, we learned more on this trip than we ever imagined possible. We have organized our new knowledge into six lessons.
Falmouth, The Spirit of the Sea
Falmouth is a beautiful port town, located in Cornwall, the southern-most county of England. Its town center is known for its deep harbors, historic preservation, and an annual Sea Shanty Festival. It is also known for its remarkable ability to collaborate, an effort that led it to winning the 2016 Great British High Street Award for “Best Coastal Community.”
We had a chance to visit with Falmouth’s “Town Team” and some of its leaders about its team, its quest for partnerships, and why collaboration is vital for economic development. (Click here to read a news article about our visit.)
“Opportunities" Instead of "Challenges"
Richard Wilcox, BID manager;* Richard Gates, Town Manager; and Mark Williams, Town Clerk joined us on a rainy Tuesday afternoon to discuss Falmouth’s economic prosperity and the essential need for partnerships. It is hard to convey how excited and optimistic these folks are about working with community organizations, volunteers, and business owners.
Their enthusiasm was extremely motivating, and their energy awe-inspiring. They welcome a challenge and focus their energies, as they work together and their partners to flip that problem into an opportunity and then celebrate the win!
A Few Takeaways From the Town Team
Wow, we think there should be a Town Team Falmouth Conference, because these folks had a lot of wonderful strategies to share with us. If we could have stayed longer, we would have had to buy another notebook. Here are a few things we learned from the Town Team…
The Concept of a Town Team Should be Articulated and Promoted
For example, the Falmouth website has a page dedicated to the Town Team and most of the website’s photos feature members of the team, lots of volunteers, elected officials, and town center business owners. The town is adamant about branding and marketing with consistency.
Pool Your Resources - Be They Time, Talent, or Treasure
For example, the town partnered with the community to renovate and adapt their historic post office, a majestic structure right in the center of the business district. They located government offices on the ground floor and leased offices to local businesses on the second floor, while preserving the building and interpreting its past.
Partner with Other Agencies
For example, like other UK cities, Falmouth must monitor its town center streets via CCTV. When funds were low, the Town Team approached the local fire brigade and offered to provide the brigade with much needed office space, in exchange for monitoring services, since the brigade’s support staff must be on call 24 hours a day. Problem solved.
Bring Highly Talented and Trained Volunteers into the Process
As a friend once said to one of us, “Your volunteers don’t work for you, you work for your volunteers.” Let’s face it, they require supervision and be high maintenance. But the good ones are gold. The Town Team Falmouth (and other towns we visited) depend heavily on volunteers for events and special projects. The key is to plan ahead, choose who you need, and know how you use their abilities to accomplish your goals.
Main Street Advantages for Partnerships
All of the strategies described above are applicable to Main Street programs. In fact, when pursuing partnerships and collaboratives, Main Street offices have fewer obstacles to challenge the formation and more resources to support them than their British counterparts.
Typically, in the UK there is a strong county government between the town and the national government. Often the county exerts controls on the towns in a district, impacting budgets, fees, services, and priorities that can affect town centers.
And, although the Great British High Street Award is an exciting contest, there is no sustainability program behind it; it has no “teeth.” A situation we hope is soon corrected. In the US, the National Main Street Center is a solid, member-driven and professional organization, with a myriad of resources for its 1,600 downtowns and districts (the Georgia Main Street Program has over 100 Main Street program member cities).
Further Applications for Main Street
A Main Street program and its board should reach out beyond the typical relationships with its city council and staff, chamber of commerce, and business and property owners, and challenge itself to consider a wide variety and combination of partnerships.
- Partner with regional universities or colleges to
- locate satellite campuses downtown;
- Create special events that will appeal to students and families who will shop and dine;
- Seek bonds revenue opportunities;
- Recruit interns, especially those who are in their professional programs;
- Seek input in each entity’s master planning process; and
- Secure use of campus parking deck for weeknight and weekend visitors;
- Collaborate with your Chamber to produce advertising and marketing projects and produce partner events;
- Team up with the City to
- Participate in producing its master plan;
- Schedule routine downtown maintenance;
- Find funding; and
- Make board appointments;
- Meet with the Georgia Main Street Program to
- Work with the design team and arrange for downtown concept drawings;
- Request training; and
- Learn about access to loans.
A Case Study in Partnership
Between 2006 and 2016, the Dahlonega (Georgia) Main Street and Downtown Development Authority sponsored construction bonds for the University of North Georgia.
This partnership reinvigorated the Downtown and University relationship. Together they built dorms, a new dining hall, a much-needed parking deck, and a mixed-use building for offices and retail, creating 30 new jobs.
The downtown program then reinvested the construction bond profits into a preservation grant program for its commercial building restorations, creating 50 new jobs and leveraging $2.1 million in private investment for 30 historic buildings.
Now, that is a partnership.
When it Comes to Collaborations and Partnerships, First Think, "Together," Then Think, "Outside"
Naturally, the most important message about partnerships is to make them – reach out and connect with organizations that have similar missions, complementing resources, and local interests. But, you should also approach your potential partnerships by considering your plan – the economic development projects ahead.
Often, we don’t think outside the box when it comes to collaborating with other agencies or individuals. Build your Town Team, build it with your goals in mind, and build it by thinking In ways you never considered before.
Think about your Town Team turning challenges into opportunities!
* Business Improvement District (more about these in another lesson)