The Georgia Trust

The Economic Impact of Georgia's Main Street Program:
A Public/Private Success Story

Mary Anne Thomas, State Coordinator *
Georgia Main Street Program
Department of Community Affairs

In the late nineteen seventies, concerned citizens from the public and private sectors of several small cities in the mid-west approached the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) with a problem. NTHP had helped these cities save landmark buildings in their downtowns. The problem was these buildings, while grand to look at, sat empty; and around them, the downtowns were dying.

NTHP at this time had no previous experience in downtown revitalization. However, they decided to begin a pilot project to see what could be done. After holding a regional competition among 70 small cities, three communities, ranging in size from 5,000 to 38,000, were chosen for the project: Galesburg, IL; Madison, IN; and Hot Springs, SD.

With a grant from Bird and Son, a manufacturing firm, NTHP hired a full time downtown manager for each of the three communities. Working closely with the public and private sectors, these first Main Street Managers became catalysis for change. The now well-known Main Street Approach ™ to downtown development with its four point guideposts: organization, design, promotion and economic restructuring, was under way.

After only three years, the economic conditions in the project cities had begun to turn around. Sales tax revenues increased by 25%; occupancy rates rose dramatically; and for every dollar spent managing the downtown programs, $11 was spent by the private sector on rehabilitation and adaptive use projects.

Interest in this new approach to downtown revitalization spread rapidly throughout the United States. In 1980, NTHP formed the National Main Street Center (NMSC); and in collaboration with the International Downtown Executives' Association (IDEA), decided to go national with the project. States were invited to apply to become part of a pilot program, with offices of state government providing: coordination; criteria for designation as a Main Street city; training for Main Street managers, board members and other volunteers; and a vehicle for admitting new cities to the program.

Steve Storey, then and now with the Department of Community Affairs (DCA), and Bruce MacGregor, now with the Georgia Building Authority, wrote Georgia's application. Joe Burnette, at that time executive director of the Athens Downtown Development Authority (DDA), the late Dan Sweat with Central Atlanta Progress, and Art Jackson, then with the Waycross DDA, were among the early Georgia leaders in downtown development who helped MacGregor and Storey ready the application. Georgia was accepted with five others states to take part in the first nation wide effort in downtown revitalization using the Main Street Approach. ™

Bruce MacGregor was named the first state coordinator for Georgia's new statewide Main Street Program.

Other states selected were North Carolina, Texas, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Colorado. Thirty-eight states entered the competition.

DCA wasted no time getting the new program under way. Of the five original cities designated in 1980, Athens, LaGrange and Waycross are still active in the program.

1980 to 1993:
Each year, new cities with populations between 5,000 and 50,000, were added to the growing Main Street roster. However, in 1991, with budget cuts in departments of state government, DCA dropped coordination of the Main Street Program on a state level. DCA had helped to develop strong local programs, and these programs continued to grow with guidance from the Georgia Main Street Association (GMSA) formed in 1988.
In 1993, leadership from GMSA requested the Department of Industry, Trade and Tourism (DITT) take the coordination of the Main Street Program. A budget was developed with the assistance of GMSA and included in DITT's FY94 budget. There were 32 cities in the Georgia Main Street Program when DITT began full time coordination of the program on July 1, FY94.

The statistics from Main Street cities complied by DCA and GMSA from 1980 to 1993 show a program that is succeeding.

Investments in Central Business Districts (CBD) (Figures for the first four years of the Georgia Main Street Program are not complete)

Private Investment:
Public Investment:
Net Gain:
Jobs: 7,773

The median yearly budget for a local Main Street program during this time period was $37,000, and is not included in the public investment figures. The private/public leverage ratio is approximately 40 to 1 ($40 private dollars spent for every $1.00 public dollar). (Figures supplied by Department of Community Affairs).

Georgia now has 46 designated Main Street cities. Statistics continue to prove success and underscore the economic development impact of planned and managed downtown development.

FY94 - FY2000:
Investments in CBD
Private Investment:
Public Investment:
Total Investment:
Net Gain:
Jobs: 8,789

The median yearly budget for a local Main Street program during this 6-year period was approximately $56,000 for a total of $340,000. This figure includes contributions from the public and private sectors, and is not included in the above investment figures. Median yearly budget for local Main Street programs in FY2000 was $85,000, up from $54,000 in FY1999.

Investment in CBD: 1980-2000:
Total Investment:
Net Gain:
Jobs: 16,562

On the national level in 1999, with 46 states representing over 16,000 communities reporting their statistics to the National Main Street Center, the results are:

Total in investment in CBD: $12.8 billion
Net Gain:
Jobs: 193,600
Private/Public leverage ratio: $38.34 -$1.00

Investments and jobs are important tools in measuring the economic impact of a Main Street program. Another important measure of a Main Street program's economic impact is the tax base of the central business district. The Office of Downtown Development of the Georgia Municipal Association (GMA) has done an excellent study on the tax base in three Georgia Main Street cities, covering the period prior to their Main Street program starting (1976) up to 1996.

In each of the cities (Milledgeville, Rome and Tifton), the tax base was flat or declining prior to beginning an organized and managed approach to their downtown development. After several years using the Main Street approach, the tax base began a steadying climb upward, benefiting not only the city but also the county and particularly the public schools.

Bruce Green, then with GMA's Office of Downtown Development, conducted the study with help from the Main Street managers in the three cities. In his conclusion, Green states that his study indicates that cities with an organized, systemic approach to downtown development, along with active downtown business associations and a broad base of community support, experience the greatest levels of economic development in their downtown districts.

For a copy of GMA's important tax base study, please contact Linda Wilkes at GMA.

The Georgia Main Street Program returned to the Department of Community Affairs (DCA) on July 1, 2001. The Office of Downtown Development was created to include the Better HomeTown Program, the Main Street Program and the proposed Urban Program. The Georgia Main Street Program is proud of successes of Georgia’s designated Main Street cities over the last 21 years. With DCA’s commitment to downtown revitalization for Georgia cities large and small, we look forward to even more dramatic success stories in the next 20 years.

We are also proud of the working public/ private partnerships, on the local and state level, that insure the continued success of what Roberta Gratz, author of The Living City, has called one of the most successful economic development programs in the United States.

* Written for presentation at the Celebrating Rural Georgia Conference held in Perry in August 1998. Statistics revised in September 1999 and again in September 2000. Text revised September 2001.




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