I have been fortunate to be associated with Main Street for over a decade now. Along the way I have discovered that many of us face similar situations. That similarity got me thinking. Are these really situations, or does this similarity lead to group-think about a problem? Is there a problem, or do we say it’s a problem because everyone else is?
The good news is that I don’t think there is a lot throwing our hands up and not dealing with problems. I have also found that Main Streets are some of the most helpful people you will ever run across. This could be because we aren’t in competition with each other. One community’s success doesn’t cost another community, so we are eager to share our knowledge and help each other achieve great things.
Having said that, there are a few things that I have found that I think are “Main Street Myths” that I’d like to dispel. This comes with a disclaimer because, of course, not all Main Streets are the same so your community may be the exception. However, I think there are a lot of norms across our industry that I want to address.
This could be further from the truth. We have to operate as a business, and I think the majority of Main Street directors understand this. Where I think some communities struggle is the non-profit side of this. Non-profit does NOT mean that you cannot make money. In fact, you absolutely should be making money. Non-profit is a tax distinction, not a financial forecast.
The difference between a non-profit organization and a for-profit one is the desired outcome. In a for-profit business, the goal is profit. We want to make money. In a non-profit organization, mission is the goal. In Main Streets this usually means the revitalization of our downtown or our community. However, this doesn’t mean we cannot make money.
We are still a business. We still need to have money set aside for a rainy day. We still need to pay our employees, cover our overhead, and even invest in our district through capital improvements. In order to do this, we have to have the finances to accomplish this.
That means that your events shouldn’t be breaking even, they should make money – especially those events that require a lot of staff and volunteer time. Yes, there is an exception to every rule, but they should be just that, an exception. When I worked for the Boy Scouts we had a loose policy that each event make roughly 15% profit. Each event you run will be different, but if you don’t have a starting point, this may be something you want to implement.
Making money as an organization shouldn’t be frowned upon or something to ashamed of. It means we are setting ourselves up for success and ensuring we’ve got something to build on as we move forward and continue our mission of downtown revitalization.
Yes, the dreaded time argument. I have heard directors talk about not having enough time for everything from running events to talking to their businesses (yes, a director really said they were too busy to talk to their businesses).
The fact of the matter is that we make the time for the things that are important to us. When we prioritize something we find a way to get it done. Instead of saying “I don’t have time” try to reframe the statement. “I understand that is important but right now our focus is on ….”.
I was fortunate that when I started in Main Street I had a strong Board of Directors who actually told me not to let our little events take up all my time. It’s very easy to get sidetracked with small events that only benefit a handful of people or businesses but eat up an enormous amount of time. My board was very clear with me that this was not acceptable. That gave me the freedom to say no! Gasp, did he say no? Yes, I said NO!
This is probably the thing Main Street practitioners struggle with more than anything. We want to help everyone, we see value in most ideas, and we think we can find a way. We unintentionally back ourselves into a corner where we chew up our own time with things that aren’t benefiting the entire district. Saying no occasionally will allow you to better manage your time and allow you to get all the things you really want to prioritize done!
Ok, now he’s off his rocker. First he said no, now he evokes the “p” word. The truth is I have been in Districts across the country. If I am being perfectly honest, I have been in a grand total of ONE that had a legitimate parking problem. One. One singular district.
That lucky community was Ocean Beach California, a neighborhood in San Diego. They have a great district that borders the ocean with great surfing. There are awesome restaurants, shops, and some great mixed-use buildings that have the district vibrant all day and night long. They even have a wait list for businesses to move in because there aren’t any spaces available. We should all be so lucky. Their biggest issue is that they truly have a lack of parking. There aren’t empty lots, no parking lots, and no buildings that you could tear down to create parking. I had the good fortunate to visit on a random Tuesday night at about 6:30pm and it was packed. I don’t mean it was busy, I mean it was PACKED! Luckily I took an Uber so I didn’t have to try to find a parking spot, because they are very hard to come by. Between the residents, the surfers, the businesses, and the tourists there is more demand than they have supply. I was taken aback because it was so awesome to see a community that really had a parking problem.
However, that’s not most of us. Most of us would either say we have a parking problem, or our residents, business owners, and visitors would. The reality of the situation is that we don’t have a parking problem, we have a perception problem. Most downtowns I visit have plenty, if not an abundance, of parking. The real difference is that unlike a box store, that parking may not be directly in front of the business you want to go to. Amazingly, previous generations were able to navigate this problem just fine. I don’t know if it is our GPS devices, our laziness, or something else, but we seem to forget that we are allowed to park around the corner and walk to the store.
We as an industry really need to change the way we talk about parking. We can combat the perception with reality. Promote how many parking spots you have downtown. Take a rolling tape measure and measure a city block, then compare it to how far it is from the first parking stall at a big box to something pretty mundane, I like to pick the milk because most shoppers get it and it is in the back of a lot of stores (don’t mind the looks you’ll get with the tape measure, this is for science!).
Whatever you do, change the narrative about parking in your downtown. Beg, borrow, plead, guilt, hell even bribe your business owners not to take up spots intended for customers. That alone will solve a lot of your issues. While we can’t all be Ocean Beach, we can at least try to lessen the perceived burden.
These may seem like common sense. I hope they do. What we do isn’t rocket science, but it is important. The more we change some of the narrative and strengthen our organizations the better we will all be.