Wednesday, October 24, 2012

You Never Stop Learning

As I click the keys on my laptop, I'm sitting at the airport in Milwaukee, just returning from a Main Street Resource Team Visit to Waterford, WI.  If you're not familiar with Waterford, it's about 40 minutes outside of Milwaukee.  They are a designated Wisconsin Main Street Community and have been practicing Main Street for almost a year and a half.  My part of the visit was to assist business owners with their marketing needs.  You know me, can't think of many things that I enjoy more than working with independent businesses, so the last couple days were a blast.

As I met the people of the community, it struck me that there are so many similarities in downtowns, no matter where they are or how long their Main Street efforts have been underway.  I met the enthusiastic Main Street faithfuls, who serve on multiple committees and believe in the positive future of their community so much, it's hard not to jump on board with their enthusiasm.  There are those that are keeping things at arms length, taking a wait-and-see attitude.  And of course, there are those that "know" exactly what needs to be done, but they aren't about to invest their time or money to do it. But as I met the cast of characters, I found myself reflecting on my journey with Main Street and what I've learned so far. 

Consistency is key.  I know it's sounds elementary, but you can't imagine the return on investment when you take the time to constantly engage your community.  It can't be an annual effort or a visit only to ask for participation or funding.  Main Street organizations need to form relationships with their stakeholders.  So you went to a business owner once to ask for support and they said no. What do you do?  Go back again...and again.  They are in your community and you need to have them on board.  And for goodness sake, if you expect them to come to you, then create opportunities like merchant meetings or networking events.

Small successes mean the most.  In Waterford, almost everyone we met told us about the Art Walk event that took place the week prior to our visit.  It was the first event put on by the Absolutely Waterford Promotions Committee. It had all the elements - strong involvement by businesses, over 500 attendees, and it accomplished the goal - to raise awareness and ring registers.  This event might not sound like a big deal, but it seemed to almost overnight reinvigorate some of the volunteers and board members that had been starting to feel overwhelmed and frustrated.  Thoughts were now turning to making the event bigger and better and creating new events using the same formula for success.  Sometimes it takes one small win to reinforce that time given to Main Street is worth its weight in gold.

Main Street is a powerful brand. The two new businesses that opened in Waterford could have gone to any downtown, but they specifically chose Waterford because they heard that Main Street was coming.  It made me think about how I'm leveraging the Main Street brand in my community?  By getting comfortable and taking it for granted, have I been missing opportunities?  (You might imagine what's on my to do list when I get back to Rochester.) The National Main Street Center is in a pivotal point in their history, soon to hire a new director who will have the important and exciting task of blazing the trail for Main Street's future.  I truly believe that with the right person, Main Street will take it's rightful place on the national stage as the premier economic development methodology for communities.

So did I come up my next big idea while I was in Waterford?  No, but I did learn that somewhere along the way I picked up a lot of ideas for helping businesses market themselves, and I was excited to share it with anyone who would listen. Most importantly for me, it affirmed what I had hoped, I'm still lucky enough to be doing what I love.  And every day offers the opportunity to learn something new.  Can't really ask for more than that.

The Downtown Geek