Downtown Dave – Main Street, the heart and soul

I have received encouragement for this column almost daily from readers like yourselves. Many people have been following what is happening in downtown Three Rivers, and want to believe in a positive change. The revitalization work we are doing is important, and I believe someday soon, its results will exceed expectations. But, it’s easy for me to say that, and I think it’s important to say why our effort is important, and why I believe it will work.
I’ll start with a quote that I really like. A prominent expert on downtown revitalization, Donovan Rypkema, coined it, and it pops up regularly during our trainings and consultation visits with Michigan Main Street. He says, “There is simply no more cost effective economic development program, of any type, on any scale, anywhere in the country than Main Street.” Why would that be true?
The answer involves a city’s ownership of its future. Main Streets are the traditional heart and soul of towns like ours, and the work we put into Main Street can have a ripple effect on the entire community. When we identify great opportunities for new businesses that support and make Main Street vibrant—the kinds of great restaurants, shops, breweries, and places for entertainment that you encounter in downtowns you like to visit—and then do the work of bringing them here, we create opportunities for growth, vitality, and quality of life.
We know those business opportunities exist, because Michigan Main Street provides the data. Here’s an example: our city’s population is about 8,000. One-fourth of our households visit a sit-down restaurant four or more times per month—that’s confirmed credit card purchases. If you expand that to a 20-minute radius, where the population is around 40,000 and incomes are higher, that’s 10,000 area households going out to eat every week, and spending perhaps $500,000 a month doing it. But, there’s a catch: just one in every six trips to a sit-down restaurant from here actually goes here. We’re taking a 30-minute drive up to Portage, where the chains are, or to Kalamazoo, where the local restaurants and breweries are. In recent surveys, local respondents ranked quality restaurants three times higher than any other business type they’d want downtown. We’ve got a real, viable opportunity—demand; a market need, and proof of it—and that’s only one business type.
Consider, then, a downtown that meets this need alone. Simply by opening restaurants, we could reasonably expect to see foot traffic here every day and night. That traffic would mean more opportunities for more businesses: stores and venues that highlight our fabulous arts community, outdoor shops that address our tremendous opportunities for recreation, ice cream for our large population of kids, and antique, toy, and curio shops that cater to the lakes. For more than forty years, and thousands of times over, the Main Street program has proven the effectiveness of market-based, ripple effect development—even in places worse off than us. We’re taking just the right steps, based on their successes, and on what the data says we will support, to be successful on Main Street.
How does this make for citywide change? That ripple effect…because the more momentum we build, the more successful our community will be. We’ve relied on manufacturing to keep food on our tables here, and I am happy to say that is still a going thing for us. It’s a tradition that makes me proud to be here, and gives us a place to start. But, we also have a solution at hand to the streets we struggle to keep up, the houses we’d like to repair, and the yearning we feel for vitality. That solution is economic diversification. It’s investment in businesses that return dollars to our city, and in making downtown a centerpiece. It’s building the kind of city we want, capitalizing on demand that we already have for businesses we know will work, and generating buzz and traffic. If we do our work, our local population will come here and they will be impressed. That means more demand. As demand grows, and word gets out, soon people might even visit from elsewhere. Demand eventually gets bigger than the real estate can handle, and growth spreads to other places. Everyone benefits.
Downtown, the Riviera and Kelsey Block continue to expand their menus, and our cafes hold steady. As I write this, Rooster’s Wing Shack is taking limited reservations, and will be fully open for business very soon. Our events schedule is expanding rapidly. We’re taking the steps to show that this will work, and working hard to make our city’s investment of time, money, and energy worth your while. I hope you’ll come downtown soon, because this really is all about you, and our city, and owning its future.

Dave Vago is Executive Director of the Three Rivers Downtown Development Authority and Main Street Program. He spent summers growing up in Three Rivers, and has worked in the business of making great old places socially and commercially viable.

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