January 1, 2019

When Main Street is a State Highway: Building Community through Transportation in Valentine, Nebraska

CIRD Staff
Valentine's pride of place shows in the town logo and brand.

“When Main Street is a State Highway” was published in 2001 by the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) as a handbook for communities and designers for “blending function beauty and identity.”

It was the first of many pavement-busting efforts to resolve the seemingly conflicting goals of generating downtown vitality and meeting the demands of traffic safety. A key concept of this handbook has become fairly commonplace over the past 17 years. A holistic consideration for land use, transportation, and economic development results in a complete street that serves multiple functions.

Highway 83 runs from North Texas straight through to North Dakota. Valentine, Nebraska sits somewhere in the upper middle, the closest neighbor the Rosebud Lakota Sioux reservation, where Highway 83 runs right through Main Street.  Valentine is lucky. The looming façade to façade reconstruction of Main Street by Nebraska Department of Transportation is a cause for celebration.  It’s an opportunity to reconstruct a main street that can both reenergize local retail, and give a leg up to local entrepreneurs and "ruralennials" who are responsible for opening the newest and most eclectic businesses Cherry County has seen in over a generation.

Main Street Valentine Nebraska as it looks today. Young's Western Warehouse is an anchor destination retailer.

Valentine looked to the CIRD program for assistance to ensure that the city benefits from the struggles and lessons learned by small towns and rural communities working with their State DOTs over the past 17+ years. The local community also sought assistance in navigating and facillitating relationships between the City, Main Street businesses, and the Nebraska Department of Transportation; before, during, and after the roadway reconstruction.

The questions and challenges explored in the workshop included:

  1. How can main street businesses survive a year or more of roadway construction that promises to detour and inconvenience customers and reduce on-street parking?
  2. How can Main Street not only recover, but also leverage the newly redesigned street to attract new businesses, and sustain existing businesses?
  3. How can existing buildings and structures evolve to increase their potential to enhance and add amenities to Main Street, including a second story for apartments, alleyways that serve as public spaces, or widened sidewalks that can offer outdoor café seating area?
  4. What could the new Main Street look like? Who maintains trees and landscape? Does there have to be a tradeoff between bump outs, curb extensions, and parking?
The CIRD workshop was held in a vacant storefront right on Main Street so workshop participants could explore and experience the street and to emphasize the importance of Main Street as a high profile destination for the City.

The Resource team members had all lots of great ideas to share: Josh Bloom of the Clue Group shared the Iowa Main Street’s Surviving Road Construction “Survival Guide for Businesses.” Emiko Atherton of Smart Growth America, Director of the National Complete Streets coalition shared a video from Alexandria, MN - a stirring documentary of the before, during, and after transformation of this small town main street and commitment of all concerned to work hand in hand to see it through. Jim Leggitt, an architect, urban planner, author, and professional illustrator produced dozens of sketches showing potential makeovers of Main Street businesses with ideas for façade upgrades, new signage, and second floor retail and residential spaces; based on work he’s done in downtowns for the past 45 years. He worked with Kim Wilson, a professor of landscape architecture at University of Nebraska - Lincoln to craft a series of street redesign options and cross sections to bridge the gap between community desire, traffic engineering, and design.

NEA Design Specialist Courtney Spearman and University of Nebraska faculty Jenny Nixon facilitate a small group discussion about intersection design and street cross sections.

The response from the NDOT was overwhelmingly positive.  They were extremely appreciative of the City for taking the lead (as per Maryland’s SHA advice) to produce “participation by all the parties in a combined effort to achieve a result satisfactory for all,” something NDOT understands is absolutely vital to the success of any road project but currently lacks the internal expertise to carry out.  

Construction is slated to start in 2021, and there was concern among the local team that the community will lose interest or suffer from planning fatigue. However, rather than a problem, the timeline provides a generous window to implement significant short-term and temporary interventions along Main Street; such as parklets, temporary bump outs, and moveable planters that can help mitigate lingering community concerns about these issues in the long-term. Temporary interventions and on-site demonstrations address the issue of planning fatigue, while also bringing the community together to engage in a different way. The community can learn more about what’s possible in a low-stakes manner, and business owners can work toward developing a long-term Main Street organization that can launch with the completion of reconstruction.

NDOT transportation engineers discuss the scope of the Main Street reconstruction project with Mayor Kyle Arganbright.

To borrow a quote from the Maryland State Highway handbook: “It is a great time to be in the “road business!” Nebraska’s communities, engineers, and designers have never had a better opportunity to develop excellent roadway improvement projects as they do right now. The CIRD workshop helped catalyze many new ideas and conversations to drive Valentine's Main Street reconstruction!