Navigating a Path Forward: Building Community Resilience from the Ground Up
“Twenty years ago, myself and a small group of residents recognized that Columbia Borough was dying,” says Mayor Leo Lutz on a balmy September day. The backdrop looks anything but on the decline as he talks, with families riding by on bikes and a line of eager ice cream enthusiasts wrapped around the corner of Cookies and Cream, a trailside pit stop that ties the river park to the gateway of the downtown business district. “We had lost our hospital. Our biggest manufacturer had left. Things were going downhill in a hurry.” It was this group that gathered – and also those same friends who urged Lutz to become mayor – that would kickstart Columbia’s path towards revitalization. He was in, he told them, but only if they all were.
It’s a story that’s familiar to other communities across Pennsylvania. Toeing the brink of apathy and decline, our towns have weathered seismic shifts. In spite of such challenges, there are those communities that have managed to pivot and invest in its people while working to create a great place, creating a ripple effect that pays dividends long after the initial investment, illustrating how growth, prosperity and inclusion can be complementary, not contradictory, goals for meaningful economic development. These are the communities that haven’t just fixed up buildings or streetscapes. They’ve internalized the formula for successful revitalization that creates diverse, durable local economies, valuing the quality of life and understanding at its core that forming human connections – through social interactions and business development – plays a significant role. When a community puts people first, good design follows.
“Before I took on the role, I sat down with my grandfather, who was a former mayor. Where do we turn, I asked him. And what he said stuck with me forever: the future of Columbia lies in its past.” So this, Lutz says with a smile, gesturing towards the town center, is where they started. “We started looking at what made Columbia great years ago – the river, the railroad, our people and our large inventory of historic downtown buildings.” Those early meetings of passionate residents and business owners – people with a strong connection and investment in the community – are still held today. The group became a web of resilience that remained intact and would serve as a collaborative regenerative system, even in the face of setbacks and opposition.
Though challenges now might look different than those decades ago for our communities – the Great Depression, the proliferation of shopping malls and sprawl, and, most recently, the pandemic – the existential threat they pose is no less potent, and we’ve learned time and time again that our Main Streets are surprisingly resilient when supported by a community-based strategic backbone. Across Pennsylvania, we saw organizations spring into action to meet the complications of COVID, helping retailers and restaurants navigate PPP applications, working with local governments to create safe outdoor eating and shopping spaces, coaching small business owners through options with online storefronts, and celebrating one another in spite of the isolation. If anything, it was through this period of lockdown that the importance our downtowns and civic centers became even more clear: that as humans, we long to be together, to share holidays, celebrations, and take pride in our community. It is this pride of place that proves immeasurable and is vital to a community’s health to weather setbacks, like those still rippling out through the pandemic, and find new ways forward.
“Try to envision what it’s going to be like ten years from today. If it’s failing today, what’s going to make it better ten years from now?” Lutz says. It’s not simply a conjuring of the nostalgic. Our Main Streets represent our centers – not just as our economic engines, but also as our community’s stage, and our community’s living room. We don’t go to gated communities or isolated shopping malls to learn our stories. Cultivating your community’s authentic character is at the heart of community revitalization, where the independent spirit of entrepreneurialism and innovation can thrive.
In the Main Street Approach™, revitalizing downtowns and central business districts with Transformation Strategies lies at the core and articulates a focused, deliberate path towards strengthening the local economy and aligning the community with that strong sense of authentic identity. The process is comprehensive and the work is incremental, organized around the full spectrum of interrelated issues that affect commercial districts instead of just focusing on one or two problems. And it all begins with meaningful community engagement. A Main Street America Coordinating Program through the National Main Street Center (NMSC), Pennsylvania Downtown Center (PDC), is part of a powerful, grassroots network consisting of 45 Coordinating Programs and over 1600 neighborhoods and communities across the country committed to creating high-quality places and to building stronger communities through preservation-based economic development. PDC serves as the statewide educational and technical service provider, in partnership with DCED (Department of Community & Economic Development), working to engage local community leaders and volunteers, and educate them, to advance the sense of place, quality of life and economic vitality of the Commonwealth’s downtowns, traditional neighborhood business districts and nearby residential areas. “We’ve been a Main Street for over 20 years,” says Naomi Naylor, Executive Director of Quakertown Alive! and long standing member of PDC. “Our history unfolds with getting lots of support from the Chamber and the Borough, and crafting a strategic plan that was responsive to make our downtown vibrant. We aligned with our Borough’s goals to get support, and that engagement, combined with the education and networking received through the PDC’s network, was key.”
Generated through meaningful engagement and informed by market analysis, Transformation Strategies guide a revitalization program’s work to quietly and collectively reimagine and renew the heart of our communities, both as an overarching concept and a hand-on approach. It’s not a silver bullet/one-size-fits-all fix, but a collaborative process that supports a program’s ongoing evolution. Implemented through four broad areas, known as the Four Points, these strategies include Economic Vitality, Design, Promotion, and Organization. Economic Vitality focuses on capital, incentives, and other economic tools to assist business recruitment and retention, catalyze property development, and create a supportive environment for entrepreneurs and innovators that drive local economies. Design supports a community’s transformation by enhancing the physical and visual assets that set the commercial district apart. Promotion positions the downtown or commercial district as the center of the community and hub of economic activity, while creating a positive image that showcase’s a community’s unique assets. And lastly, Organization involves creating a strong foundation for a sustainable revitalization effort, including cultivating partnerships, community involvement, and resources for the district.
The fault line opened up by the challenges posed by the pandemic will affect all of our futures – as individuals, and as communities – but by consistently working from a defined strategy that actively engages business owners and residents, we can carefully reflect on the cataclysmic events of the past two years and reimagine the contribution that community development can make towards creating a socially just and economically robust community core. Main Street is a distinct place, a place where people want to be, and helping businesses is a path towards recovery, but it’s not the only path. A place must also recover as a hive of commerce and community if the future is to thrive. Main Street can be that accelerator. Remarks Naylor, “I’ve had many people reach out to me that are not a Main Street or part of PDC, because they see how we’ve grown over the past 20 years and they want that for their own town.”
By PDC’s Network Relations & Content Designer, Emily Zebel | Featured in the February 2022 Issue of Borough News