Historic preservation is at the heart of the Main Street movement. It’s what sets Main Street apart from other economic development initiatives in communities. Despite being the heart of the movement, what does historic preservation mean and how do Main Street organizations identify, advocate, and educate community members about the historic assets that make their community unique?
The National Park Service says, “Through historic preservation, we look at history in different ways, ask different questions of the past, and learn new things about our history and ourselves. Historic preservation is an important way for us to transmit our understanding of the past to future generations. Historic preservation helps tell our stories which involve celebrating events, people, places, and ideas that we are proud of.” But how do we bring this mentality to the local level and advocate and educate the community on local assets? The first question is, “What are your local assets?”
Every historic downtown is unique by nature. The buildings, people, and businesses are all unique and have a different story to tell that has shaped what downtown is today and will be in the future. First, there is a history behind why your community was made and many times understanding your downtown, the original development in a community, helps to shape that story and narrative. This is where Main Street organizations can start to showcase the historic assets in their downtown; look back at how the downtown was developed and tell those stories to the community. This fosters an appreciation of those historic assets and educates the community on why your downtown’s story is unique starting at its conception.
There are also other stories to tell that may not have to do with that original development. Did you know that what we consider history is not just 100+ years old; history is made every day. The invention of pre-sliced and packaged sliced bread in Chillicothe in 1928 created a new historic asset that added to the fabric of the community.
Chillicothe is a great example of a big event happening, but not every story or event has to be so dramatic in nature. There are many unidentified assets that are waiting to be identified. After identifying your historic assets, Main Street organizations can craft their downtown’s story to be told through educational materials to the community, such as Route 66 coming through downtown, a building that has housed or is currently housing a significant business, or an historic courthouse; these are all historic assets that make a downtown unique.
For instance, Carthage celebrates its unique history using art, by creating a mural that celebrates the important artists and people from the community.
In Laclede’s Landing in St. Louis, they celebrate the story of Ester, an emancipated slave and one of--if not the--first black, female landowner in St Louis, with the renaming and activation of an alley.
Main Street organizations, while primarily an economic development organization, have the responsibility to identify and share those unique historic assets in their downtown. Historic preservation is layered into how Main Street organizations can distinguish themselves as being different from other economic development entities. In addition, heritage travelers, who, according to Global Urban Development, spend 2.5 times more money in a community, are looking for historic assets that set your downtown apart. Every downtown is different; that story needs to be identified and told to the community and to potential visitors.