We traveled to the United Kingdom for three weeks in June to study the British High Street, the counterpart to the American Main Street. While there, 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.
Lesson One: Storytelling
Once upon a time, an American firm visited with British town center leaders, business owners, super volunteers, and tourism directors from all across the land. Much to their delight, it was from these kind folks that they learned about the magic of storytelling.
Storytelling, whether it be through written or spoken word or through visuals, is critical for High Street and Main Street economic development for many reasons.
- Interrupt negative opinions,
- Energize local residents,
- Welcome newcomers who are seeking similar experiences,
- Invite public engagement and build community,
- Tell the history of a downtown and the value of local historic preservation, and
- Build a positive brand for success.
We spoke with Crickhowell town leaders, Lesley Alexander-Carter, Mayor and Dean Christy, Manager of the Corn Exchange, about the power of storytelling, community engagement, and Crickhowell being declared the grand winner of the 2018 Great British High Street Award.
They both pointed to storytelling as a motivator for the town’s new-found success as a tourist destination and revived shopping district.
Crickhowell, Wales is the gateway to the Brecon Beacon National Park; it is a small quaint village, with a population of around 2,000 people and a 500-year-old town center. Its residents pride themselves on their community engagement. And, like the army ant, they lift more than their “weight” in volunteering, organizing, and taking action.
This ethic was evident by their reaction to learning that a national chain supermarket intended to tear down a historic building on High Street, threatening to change the character of the town center and the existence of local shops that had served the community for generations.
While the announcement was met with local protest, volunteers began organizing to assess the problem. They created videos to document and tell the story of the Corn Exchange and its value to the community.
The videos, including a high-quality documentary, told the stories of the town and prompted community members into saving and renovating the building through crowdfunding.
Telling the story of the impending destruction on High Street spurred hundreds of residents to contribute to the purchase and restoration of The Corn Exchange. Now the building houses a set of small shops and rental flats and, most importantly, it belongs to the community and is currently protected from destruction.
This powerful community story was at the heart of the application for the 2018 Great British High Street Award. The award and the story of the Corn Exchange are bringing visitors from all over the UK and the world.
As Dean Christy noted, “This ambitious community-led project has provided new homes in our town center, as well as preserved the character of Crickhowell, protected jobs in family-run shops, and created new employment opportunities in our High Street.”
You can read more about the Corn Exchange story here.
Storytelling as a Tool for Main Street
Storytelling powerful enough to raise your downtown profile can be done one of two ways:
Main Street can tell THE story, as Crickhowell did with the Corn Exchange rescue.
Or it can share MANY stories, as Main Street Dahlonega, Georgia did with the "Dahlonega Stories" campaign.
Dahlonega launched a campaign to promote its historic buildings in downtown: Twenty-two buildings display story plaques near their entrances. Visitors taking the self-guided Dahlonega Stories tour are encouraged to read the plaques and then visit the businesses inside the buildings to learn more.
Just as telling THE story of a particular time and place in downtown rallies residents and attracts visitors, telling MANY stories brings cohesion and brands the downtown with a positive identity.
What is YOUR Main Street Story?
Does your downtown have an amazing BIG story to share?
For example, Main Street Toccoa, Georgia, rescued (and operates) the historic Ritz Theater, saving this 1939 icon from its disrepair and now using it as a regional center for diverse cultural and community entertainment.
If you do tell the big story, be sure to illustrate it with lots of photographs, videos, and testimonials. Provide resources for curious visitors to do further research or stages for photo opportunities.
Or perhaps your Main Street has many stories to tell?
To start, you might consider using the Power of 10 approach...
Start with 10 stories that are connected to promote as a campaign.
Tell the stories of your cornerstone businesses, young entrepreneurs, or shops that promote environmental best practices or that are pet friendly. Find 10 alleys and pocket parks that are clean and inviting to visitors.
Start a “We are -----” (Main Street Newnan, Main Street Greensboro, etc.) YouTube Channel and invite submissions.
Remember to tell the story that sets your downtown apart. Invite your community members to tell stories through spoken or written word or visuals.
Celebrate your uniqueness and avoid sameness.
If every Main Street tells the same story then Main Street has no story.
So, tell YOUR Main Street story and live happily ever after.