Main street looks and feels different. Stay at home orders during the pandemic shut down businesses, events and vibrancy on main street seemingly overnight. While main street has begun to reopen storefronts and restaurants, things are still not normal. Some stores have closed permanently, some restaurants have expanded their outdoor dining space to parks, sidewalks and streets, and more people are out and about walking around main street. As we emerge from crisis and look towards recovery and rebuilding, downtown assessment is a critical first step.
A downtown assessment collects data and information to provide a deeper understanding of the situation to help determine where to focus efforts to strengthen or revitalize your downtown. Assessing your main street includes identifying the assets or things that are excellent in the downtown and the opportunities for improvement, where something is missing or requires attention or maintenance. For example, an asset could be a park that has different seating options, beautiful landscaping and is busy with people recreating and enjoying the outdoors. An opportunity for improvement might be a vacant storefront where you would wish there was a coffee shop or a blank wall that would be ideal for a mural to brighten a side street.
There are a variety of assets that can be mapped in a community, including people, community services, organizations, businesses and physical structures. While all of these types of assets are important for main street revitalization, our downtown assessment focuses on identifying assets and opportunities for improvement that exist in the built environment. The characteristics of a vibrant downtown can help guide your downtown assessment.
As part of the assessment, consider how people are interacting on main street – does main street feel busy? Are there people visiting the restaurants? Are people walking on trails or recreating in the park? Does the downtown area feel busier than usual or is there less traffic? It is also important to take note of changes on your main street that may be a result of the pandemic. For example, have restaurants expanded their seating onto sidewalks, parks or other areas? Is this working and should this adapted for the long term?
While it is easy to focus on areas that require improvement, it is important to focus on identifying your main street’s assets. It is likely that some businesses have closed permanently so your main street may appear vacant in some areas. Focus on assets that can be leveraged, like historic buildings or natural amenities like a river or nearby trail. Assets like colorful flowers and landscaping or art displays in storefront help show that your community takes pride in their downtown. Asset-based community development is an approach that focuses on identifying community assets rather than only focusing on community needs. Identifying assets helps community members determine what resources may be leveraged or built upon to reach shared goals.
Assessing your main street will identify your assets and opportunities for improvement, helping to prioritize how to get started and what projects to work on to strengthen or revitalize main street. If you’re interested in getting involved in strengthening your main street, check your town or city website. Your community may have an economic development committee, downtown committee or association, a main street group, chamber of commerce, or a downtown business group that may already be working on main street. Working with a group in your community, you can recruit a team of volunteers to start assessing main street. For more detailed information on the characteristics of a vibrant downtown and tips for assessment, check out our Characteristics of a Vibrant Downtown Information Brief.