Main Street movement brings new business to Georgia's downtowns.
A few decades ago, many of Georgia’s downtowns could have been the backdrop for “The Walking Dead,” the apocalyptic television series filmed in the state. The downtowns weren’t exactly dead in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but they weren’t pretty and their economic prospects were poor.
Fast forward to the present day and the zombie vibe is gone. Historic business districts are flexing their way back to health – some already thriving, some still works in progress. And as they transform, the small businesses lining those once-imperiled main streets are pumping the equivalent of an auto factory’s worth of new jobs into Georgia’s economy on a yearly basis, according the head of Georgia’s Main Street program.
“It’s job creation,” says Jessica Worthington, director of the Office of Downtown Development in the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. “Especially in the world of economic development, we focus so much on industrial development, the idea of these big industries coming in and creating a world of jobs. But with the Georgia Main Street Program, we’re basically opening a Kia plant in the state every year. That’s the equivalent impact of what is happening.”
A little context: Kia opened its automobile processing plant in West Point in 2009 and now employs 2,700 people. Other auto plants have also staked a Georgia claim and gotten plenty of publicity for the jobs they might bring.
But Main Street jobs – 3,355 of them in 2022 alone – tend to slip onto the scene quietly, one or two at a time. Small business owners emerge: A respiratory therapist who baked for relaxation before she realized she was cooking up a career change. A commercial photographer who saw her job disappear during the pandemic and instead launched a brick-and-mortar store stocked with offbeat contemporary goods and vintage wares. There’s a musician who always had a hankering for the built-in community of a thriving downtown, and a meditation teacher who offers free classes to bring foot traffic to his store – and its neighbors.
“We were one of the first states in the nation to embrace the Main Street movement when we undertook this great experiment that we now know is a successful way to revitalize communities,” Worthington says. “I would say we are one of the leaders in this movement.”
The movement’s roots lie in historical preservation, as individuals and organizations across the country moved to protect downtowns and their inventory of historic commercial buildings. The goal was to strengthen communities through preservation-based economic development in older and historic downtowns and neighborhood commercial districts. Turns out, a good way of preserving something is to make it profitable. The National Trust for Historic Preservation launched the National Main Street Initiative in 1980, and Georgia’s program was among the first to sign on.
Since its entry into the national program, Georgia created $8.5 billion in public-private economic impact, starting small and growing slowly but steadily. Ironically, the Georgia Main Street Program didn’t record its first billion-dollar year until 2020, during the pandemic. Then in calendar year 2021, the impact was $1.23 billion; 2022 set another record with $1.35 billion.
Why the counterintuitive financial success during the pandemic years? “One, there was a huge shift into supporting local. I feel like supporting local went from something we were doing once a year on Small Business Saturday to something we went to doing every day,” says Worthington. “Also, people knew at some point that things would turn around. So the people that could invest did invest – moving forward to renovate or buy, knowing that while right then it was difficult, things would improve.”
Over its 43-year history, the Georgia Main Street Program has moved around a lot, falling first under one administrative structure and then another, not all of them government entities. But today it has settled down in Office of Downtown Development Office at the Department of Community Affairs (DCA), a division of state government whose brief ranges from housing to historic preservation, among myriad other assignments.
And it turns out the DCA is a good match for Main Street. The Georgia Main Street Program provides more mentoring and guidance than funds or financing, but it is ideally situated to guide entrepreneurs to various sources – like the Downtown Development Revolving Loan Fund, Rural Zone tax credits and historic preservation tax breaks, all publicly funded programs administered by the DCA.
And, while Main Steet is the major tool for the DCA’s Office of Downtown Development, a municipality doesn’t have to be a Main Street participant to receive help from that office. The Georgia Main Street Program boasts 104 participating entities, which leaves more than 400 Georgia municipalities that are not part of the program. Nor is every Main Street member a municipality. Sweet Auburn, the famous historically Black Atlanta business district and neighborhood, is a participant.
“I would say, from an economic development standpoint, it’s really about supporting woman- and minority-owned businesses: how do we empower them, making sure that there’s a place for them, that those voices are being heard,” says Worthington. “In a broader sense, it comes back to the type of businesses that are opening downtown are not just places where you go to eat or to shop but to go for experiences, like rock climbing or ax throwing.”
Most local Main Street programs in Georgia are part of city governments, but a handful are handled by nonprofits or organizations like chambers of commerce. Members participate in one of three tiers: affiliate, or entry level; classic, for more fully developed programs; or Georgia Exceptional Main Street or GEMS, the honor roll among the membership. Two very different programs rose through the ranks this year – Georgia’s fourth-largest city (actually a consolidated city/county), Macon, earned GEMS status, and the small town of Dallas moved up to classic status.
Macon Builds a Sense of Place
Macon’s Main Street program is housed in NewTown Macon, a public-private nonprofit dedicated to the downtown area. NewTown is, among other things, a CDFI or community development financial institution, meaning it can lend money or join other lenders in backing loans. By the time you factor in NewTown’s many partners – among them the Urban Development Authority whose members are appointed by the consolidated Macon/Bibb government, Historic Macon and the Peyton Anderson Foundation – there are plenty of entities to thank for elements of downtown’s revitalization. The multiple tools for one job may be the secret to Macon’s success. Oh, and a laser focus on locals.
“We are very, very, very much focused on locals and locally owned businesses and real estate developers. We are not interested in outside developers,” says Emily Hopkins, director of place and Main Street Macon manager. “People are seeing Macon and their eyes are on Macon right now, but we’ve really got to prioritize local business owners and local developers. These are the people who worked with us when people wouldn’t touch downtown Macon with a 10-foot pole. We prioritize lending to locals who are interested in staying here. That’s one of our core values – local loyalty. When we talk about gentrification, we want to be the downtown that gets it right.”.
Getting foot traffic downtown is a major focus of any successful Main Street project. Macon used a “grow your own” approach by developing the residential potential of the commercial upper stories – promoting the development of downtown lofts beginning in 2012. Today, Hopkins says, there are 756 lofts in downtown Macon that house a population of more than 1,000.
Vacant buildings and buildings still in need of rehab are in dwindling supply, she says: 80% of commercial storefronts in Macon’s “walkable core” are occupied, as are 90% of the lofts. NewTown itself owns seven properties, accounting for 12 storefronts and 67 lofts. NewTown has also bought the old Bibb Theater, which it is holding for preservation. The theater has been vacant for more than 40 years, but the group hopes it will become the fifth old theater put back in service downtown.
“We host First Friday every single month and that attracts about 20,000 people every month. Plus, we focus on events that encourage sales. We don’t do large festivals that involve street closures – other groups do those. We focus much more on events that are going to drive sales,” Hopkins says. Examples include “Downtown French Fry Fight,” a competition for downtown restaurants during the slower summer months, and a “Fair Food Frenzy” that coincides with the Georgia National Fair in the nearby city of Perry.
Macon’s Main Street program is committed to the goal of mirroring Macon’s 50/50 demographic split between Whites and Blacks. The goal is for 30% of downtown businesses to be owned by minorities or women by 2027 and then to continue working toward the 50% goal, Hopkins says.
Among the success stories is Felicia’s Cake Factory. Felicia Howard, once a stressed-out respiratory therapist with a talent for baking, makes wedding cakes and other goodies to order – while keeping a stock of sweet treats on hand to serve foot traffic. She started her business in 2014 as the sole employee; she moved downtown in 2017 and now employs four other people.
“With me not having any background in business, just how the community has taken to my dreams and my vision has been humbling,” Howard says. The Main Street Program has provided her with social media help and, in the bakery’s early days, grants for advertising. And she contributes to special downtown theme events, like fondant green eggs and ham and Seuss-style hats as cupcakes for a “Seuss on the Loose” promotion last spring.
Scott Mitchell bought The Bohemian Den in 2018 and last year moved to a Cherry Street location with triple the space. He sells what he describes as “metaphysical” goods – crystals, jewelry, candles, Turkish lamps. He’s a certified meditation instructor who teaches meditation classes in the store. He serves on Main Street’s board.
“I literally say yes to almost everything, if someone says, ‘Do you want to be involved on this?’” Mitchell says. “When they were promoting Seuss on the Loose, I might not be a kid store, but we came up with ‘Cat on the Mat’ yoga. We do live music on Friday afternoons and Sunday afternoons, poetry readings. Wednesdays we do various things. People need different ways to get through the week.
“The classes are offered for free. I mainly do them to complement the store… and get people in, because if they come to an event, they always buy something,” he says.
Trish Whitley is director of destination development for Visit Macon, but she and her husband have also joined other partners in Piedmont Brewery and Kitchen, serving up barbecue and craft beer downtown.
How does Main Street help? “It’s kind of a simple answer but I would say it’s the promotion of downtown. All of that brings people downtown and people are what downtown needs to thrive. That marketing arm brings a sense of place and community and a place where people want to come and hang out,” she says.
And the Whitleys are not alone on the craft brew scene. Among competitors are Kaitlynn and Nate Kressin, who have opened their third beer-related business downtown and expected to can their millionth can of Fall Line Brewery’s beer earlier this summer.
Dallas Makes a Comeback
Dallas, in Paulding County, is a relative newcomer (circa 2021) to the Main Street program. Its downtown is cute and quaint and already equipped with redone streetscapes – but it needs more foot traffic.
“Most people, when they drive through downtown, will say it feels like a Hallmark movie. What we lack is getting people in our stores,” says Shannon Gordon, Main Street manager. In Dallas’s municipal structure, the Main Street program falls under the city’s business development efforts.
Finding the right mix of retail, restaurants, attractions and professional tenants is a challenge for Main Streets everywhere, but Dallas has a specific problem – it needs more restaurants downtown. There’s a pizza place and at least one restaurant poised to open sometime this summer, but the city is looking for a stronger mix, Gordon says. So much so that it has invested in a municipal grease trap system that will relieve new restaurants of a major infrastructure expense, she says.
“We are in the process of developing a Tax Allocation District to build a new mixed-use development a block over from historic downtown to include parking, retail and residential, projected to be complete in three to five years,” Gordon says, adding that the residential includes roughly 275 townhome and apartment units.
Gordon adds that she has recruited Main Street entrepreneurs to serve on the board, such as Kelli Prewett of the shop Kitsch & Color.
“We were one of the first states in the nation to embrace the Main Street movement, when we undertook this great experiment that we now know is a successful way to revitalize communities.” Jessica Worthington, director of the Office of Downtown Development in the Georgia Department of Community Affairs
“[There’s] more of a sense of community between all the businesses downtown. We’re kind of new to the Main Street program, so I’m excited to see what comes from it,” Prewett says.
Prewett was a commercial photographer until she lost her job in the pandemic and began photographing and posting playful art and vintage goods for sale. Two years ago, she opened on Main Street and since then has participated in the Main Street program, including staying open late for shopping-themed nights like Girls Night Out and Galentine’s Day.
Another Dallas downtown devotee is Bradd Poole, a musician who runs Hopp Frogg Music Store on Main Street, which relocated downtown three years ago.
“My wife’s and my dream has always been to be part of downtown. Dallas is our home and where our business has been for the past 10 years,” Poole says. “We had been waiting on this building for seven years. It has its own parking and we’re primarily a lesson studio, so that was huge. Once we saw the inside, we had to have it. From what I understand, it was built in the 1950s as a Chevrolet dealership and then it became a pharmacy. It’s kind of interesting to think that there could have been a ’57 Chevy where my guitars are set up.”
Back at the Main Street offices in Dallas, Gordon notes that downtown Dallas has the look of a movie set – a fact not lost on Georgia’s thriving movie industry. The town has been a film site for several productions, among them the CW’s superhero series Stargirl. Another passing movie production sought permission from a downtown building owner to paint a mural on the building’s side as part of a movie scene. Permission was granted – provided the fake mural was painted over with one featuring the real Dallas, complete with references to local attractions like the Silver Comet hiking/biking trail and High Shoals Falls.