We traveled to the United Kingdom for three weeks in June to study the British High Street, the United Kingdom counterpart to the American Main Street. 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 four lessons.
We present Lesson Four here.
FLY THE FLAG
Joel and I visited small UK town centers and spoke with their community and city leaders, sometimes over a cider in a pub, over tea in their offices, or over lunch in a local cafe. Reflecting on our discussions of the state of High Street in the United Kingdom, we noticed that these leaders would use the term, "fly the flag," when describing their public rallying campaigns, marketing approaches, or funding efforts, as in, "We fly the flag for our town because the people love it and want the best for it."
We love this metaphor for High Street and Main Street vitality and the spirit of small downtowns as they seek to fly their flags and bring economic prosperity to their communities and regions.
UK INVESTMENT: A NEW FLAG FOR HIGH STREET
Speak to folks in the United Kingdom about the state of High Street and they often react with worry and concern.
Many High Streets in small United Kingdom towns are suffering, partly due to high rents, real estate costs, online competition, national property taxes, and the dispersal of the village life to the suburbs with its big box shopping.
Fortunately, the British government, the Great British High Street Awards program and the newly appointed Minister of High Streets are focused on flying a new flag on High Street.
Announced last year and updated just last month, the government has set aside $870 million for the Future High Streets Fund, to help local leaders rebuild and revitalize their town centers. Projects can range from transportation to converting empty retail into homes. In addition, the Great British High Street Awards program brings funding, maxing awards at $20,000 and allowing each of designee to sow the seeds of winnings into substantial projects.
Considering that the United Kingdom is about the size of Georgia and South Carolina, this is a lot of funding for innovation and rebuilding. This funding provides needed momentum for town centers seeking to fill vacant storefronts. If the national business rates aren’t to be lowered to assist retailers on High Street, then perhaps these infusions of grant monies will serve to help High Street prosper at least until the tax rates are changed.
And, many small town centers are thriving and growing on High Street!
Visit the Great British High Street Awards Twitter page to read exciting stories about and see photos of reviving downtowns; they are coming back to full occupancy and bringing new energy to village life.
A NEW FLAG FOR MAIN STREET: FUND THE GREAT AMERICAN MAIN STREET AWARD
The Great American Main Street Award is a National Main Street Center awards program, with winners announced and celebrated at its professional conference each year. The Great American Main Street Awards program and the Great British High Street Awards program are similar in process, but radically different in two – and very important – ways.
One major difference is organizational.
The Great American Main Street Award is under the flag of the National Main Street Center, an organization that has been...helping revitalize older and historic commercial districts for more than 35 years. Today it is a network of more than 1,600 neighborhoods and communities, rural and urban, who share both a commitment to place and to building stronger communities through preservation-based economic development (emphasis added) (website).
The National Main Street network is big - huge!
And its Great American Main Street Award is part of a much larger mission: to preserve historic assets, revitalize downtowns, and build community through its successful Four-Point Approach to economic development.
On the other hand…
The Great British High Street Awards program is a stand-alone program, without a formal member-driven infrastructure or governance. This makes it vulnerable to funding cuts. But this may all be changing because of the new initiatives, as described above.
This leads to the second distinction between High Street and Main Street award programs – funding.
The Great British High Street Awards program now comes with funding that provides tangible resources to the intangible, current (and important), national media coverage.
The Great American Main Street Award does not award funding.
To address this gap, we suggest that the National Main Street Center create a category within the Great American Main Street Awards program, one that provides a substantial grant, designated especially for small towns that are suffering from blight or population decline and seeking to rebrand or build a tourism niche or community identity.
Such funding would allow small town Main Street managers to engage planners, designers, market data researchers, and other consultants to partner with their communities.
Winning downtowns might form a hometown team, a knowledgeable group of professionals who have models and strategies to share or teach and who, along with downtown leadership, could organize and implement funding plans.
Recipients could apply funds to a current and unrealized priority project, with the stipulation that the outcomes result in income or increase business development.
Hometown Main Streets winners could use funding to create positive stories for success, dispel negative perceptions through placemaking, and recognize local downtown activists and businesses that serve as models for the community, inspiring others to take the challenge.
FLY THE FLAG WITH DOLLARS
Following in the footsteps of the Great British High Street Awards program and funding, the National Main Street Center and its phenomenal network could use the Great American Main Street Awards program to provide tangible tools for struggling Main Streets that want to fly their flags and bring economic prosperity downtown.