The Downtown Strong: Building Resilient Economies grant was a grant provided by the U.S. Economic Development Administration through Missouri Main Street Connection (MMSC) that will have continued impact on Missouri communities.
As the Downtown Strong: Building Resilient Economies grant comes to a close it is a good time to look back and reflect on the process, the partners, and the impact.
The grant was initiated to help Missouri’s small businesses and communities address the challenges faced in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. MMSC developed Downtown Strong, after receiving funds from the Economic Development Administration (EDA), as a service-based grant focusing on the retention of current businesses, recruitment of new businesses, job growth, and the transition of ownership or continued succession of existing businesses to support economic recovery and enhance the resiliency of Missouri’s small businesses and communities. The specific direction of the services provided through this grant came from MMSC’s observed strength of Main Street and experience with Missouri’s Main Streets during other periods of crisis. The economic reports collected during the Great Recession from Main Street programs in Missouri showed a continued addition of net new jobs meaning Main Streets are economically resilient. This grant was aimed at applying those same principles to the recent economic hardship and boosting the Main Street effect in today’s challenging times.
MMSC enlisted the services of qualified consultants who could provide direct services to communities through their downtown organization and struggling small businesses in Main Street communities.
Initially, the grant started with 82 recipients in 20 communities including 16 Main Street organizations and 66 businesses. Each of the grant recipients received one to six services for a grand total of almost 200 services in all. That’s a lot! To provide these services, MMSC contracted thirteen consultants.
If MMSC, the consultants, the businesses, and the Main Street organizations were honest, this process was harder than any initially thought. Despite the challenges that arose during the implementation of the grant, the results are undeniable.
There were many successes and “assists” during the process.
The first service was provided by MarksNelson who helped Libations in Lee’s Summit as they worked toward changing their business model and looked at buying property. Additionally, Old Town Cape in Cape Girardeau almost immediately worked with Jay Schlinsog of Downtown Professionals Network to develop an amenities plan that helped them identify how they could impact downtown safety.
Some of the organizational services were more customized. Both Downtown Lee’s Summit in Lee’s Summit, MO and Downtown Excelsior Partnership (DEP) in Excelsior Springs, MO worked with Russ Volmert of FORA Planning to develop a wayfinding plan. DEP Executive Director Lyndsey Baxter was creative in pooling resources and, in addition to the wayfinding plan, DEP worked with Joe Borgstrom of Place + Main to do a Market Analysis and Real Estate Redevelopment Strategy for strategic properties in their downtown.
General marketing, social media strategy, search engine optimization (SEO), as well as point of sale (POS) research, website, and online sales development were in great demand with the participating businesses, and our marketing consultants delivered!
Under recent, new ownership, I.B. Nuts in Washington, MO worked with Chimera Creative Works to update their brand, evaluate their business opportunities, diversify their customer base, and enhance and update their online presence. It was a lot of work for both the consultant and the new owner. But the results were transformational! Owner Holly Wunderlich commented that “it helped me put things in writing and focus my business on what I want to accomplish in the next few years.”
Annie Em’s at Home in Cape Girardeau worked with BOLD Marketing on a social media strategy, POS consultation, and development of a much needed website. Owner Emilie Stephens Buelow remarked that “the process provided me the help I needed to move forward in areas that I had no idea how to navigate. I didn’t know how much work would be involved but it was work I needed to do, and the guidance provided through the grant process made it possible. The outcomes from the work I accomplished with the consultant I couldn’t have done on my own.”
Other organizations and the businesses needed help with the “business” side of things. Succession planning, staff transition planning, business plans, and business evaluations were provided to a number of businesses and Main Street organizations. Main Street Kirksville received help developing their policies and procedures. They also needed to figure out how to move forward regarding the feasibility and structure of establishing either a pop-up shop or full business incubator service in one of the open buildings around their square. Dana Thomas with BOLD Marketing facilitated a process that helped their board make important decisions around this project.
Vicky Sonenberg with Cygnet Strategies worked with Cindy McClain and her husband in Independence, MO, who are passionate about downtown. They own multiple properties and businesses that make up a large part of Independence Square. According to Cygnet’s Analysis and Recommendation report, Vicky worked with Cindy to help twelve of the businesses and their two umbrella organizations, McClain Restaurant Group and CRM Stores, “mitigate economic impacts of the pandemic and foster a stronger more resilient business model for each business as well as the umbrella organizations.” Cindy said, “This has been a great help and a push to be better, get better, and find the strength and creativity to stand out as a small business! Having been awarded the grants, Downtown Strong became more than a tag line - it became movement.”
Important Main Street training was provided as well. Randy Wilson with Community Design Solutions provided Main Street Chillicothe and its community a training on the Universal Principles of Good Design and Historic Preservation. After the training was complete, Main Street Chillicothe immediately incorporated what they learned into their work.
And those were just some examples. There’s more you can find on our blog or by asking around Missouri!
The intent of the program was to outline services in a way that businesses and organizations could easily identify as a need and to provide a consultant to deliver that service. This worked great with some of the businesses and most of the organizations. But there were many lessons learned.
The lesson everyone learned was that we (all) had to be flexible. Businesses often didn’t truly recognize their needs or were not able to prioritize them. In the aftermath of the pandemic, their situations and needs often changed quickly. In trying to help with the application process, specific services were identified upfront but some were too vague, and many were found to be overlapping in the delivery.
Considering all these factors, the consultants initially went to work to provide the participants requested services. It was soon realized, to no surprise, that the services that needed to be delivered were more unique to each individual recipient. On the one hand, this worked well as MMSC tried to connect each consultant with the businesses or organizations suited to their specific skill set. But logistics, timing, and, yes, human limitations, sometimes interfered. On the other hand, unique was sometimes perceived as unequal. Lastly, all of it took substantially more time than anyone anticipated.
Lessons learned are good. It means that the process was seen with open eyes. Starting a project of this magnitude from the ground up is hard work, but it was well worth the effort. In the end, though not perfect, the process resulted in MMSC, consultants, businesses, and organizations working together to improve, grow, save, and transition businesses as well as advance Main Street organizations, their impact, and the downtowns across Missouri. The Downtown Strong grant program will have long term positive implications in the businesses, organizations, and downtowns it served. Most people would call that success!
The services included in this article were prepared by Missouri Main Street Connection, Inc. using Federal funds under award 05-79-06056 from Economic Development Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce. The statements, findings, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Economic Development Administration or the U.S. Department of Commerce.