October 23, 2019

A Common Theme: A thriving Main Street is critical for rural design

Isabella Green

A strong and vibrant Main Street is quintessential to the core of small-town America. It also proved to be a priority for many of this year’s CIRD Learning Cohort. Through a rigorous application and selection process, CIRD invited 23 rural communities to be part of this year’s Learning Cohort where they’ll engage in peer learning, receive design training, and navigate funding opportunities.

For half of the Learning Cohort communities, downtown redevelopment was identified as their core design challenge project type. Furthermore, almost a quarter of applicants specifically identified Main Street improvements as their core design challenge. Key elements of this included economic development, historic preservation, and better use of public spaces or parks.

Through the common themes across applications, we were able to piece together a story about rural America which is intimately related to the identity and economic success of downtown. A thriving downtown is not just for the big cities; rural communities – with populations often less than 3,000 people – are also thinking about ways to improve their main street. The national shift from a manufacturing to a service sector economic took its toll on many rural towns, but Learning Cohort communities highlighted the success they’ve had in adapting to these economic changes.

Shenandoah County Office of Economic Development
The Shenandoah County Office of Economic Development hopes to use its CIRD grant to improve communities like Toms Brook, VA.

The closure of local mines and resource extraction industries initially shook the communities of Hazard, KY, and Shenandoah County, VA. Now, both are looking to their local resources as sources of strength. Other communities are using their downtowns to explore new avenues of economic and community development. Hayesville, NC and McComb, MS plan to improve their downtown to attract businesses. Okeechobee County, FL and Walsenburg, CO are improving their downtown to attract visitors and grow their tourism industry. Sidney, ME plans to improve their downtown to improve the quality of life for their residents.

"Goal #1: To create a vibrant, authentic and pedestrian-friendly downtown that is a destination for residents and tourists.

Alternatively, some cohort communities are rethinking how to use their downtown and public spaces. The towns of Bishop, CA and Sebring, FL are conserving their towns’ structural roots by pursuing historic preservation projects. Laramie, WY wants to utilize their downtown alleyways more efficiently. San Elizario, TX wants to improve their Main Street roadways to make them more accessible to residents and visitors. Woodward, OK plans to overcome planning codes and parking barriers to make their historic arts theatre more usable. For each of these Learning Cohort communities, their design challenges are rooted in downtown redevelopment, but depends strategies that intersect with other work going on in the community.

Clearly, Main Street remains the backbone of rural communities across the country, and CIRD is excited to help this year's cohort communities tackle their downtown design challenges.

Currently, CIRD has several existing publications and resources on downtown revitalization, including Placemaking strategies for Main Streets and the 2018 CIRD workshop in Valentine, NE. As part of their year in CIRD, Learning Cohort communities will also receive several perks to tackle their downtown design challenges, including:

  • The Learning Cohort Summit where they’ll attend design workshops and develop a design challenge plan.
  • Access to online webinars and coaching on design-related topics.
  • Opportunities to exchange experience and knowledge with other rural communities.
  • Technical assistance.

CIRD looks forward to supporting the cohort’s creative and restorative Main Street placemaking projects.

Interested in Main Street placemaking? Tweet us at @rural_design to let us know what else we should be doing!