Growing up in Los Angeles, I didn't have a "Main Street." We shopped at the mall and drove everywhere, even to buy a carton of milk. In those years, L.A. was unusual; it soon became America's norm.

Can you remember your town's old Main Street? What happened when the mall opened? Then the giant discount superstores? Downtowns slowly withered, and along with them, many small companies died.

Small business does well when downtowns thrive. I'm not just referring to retailers. Lots of companies benefit when pedestrians walk in a healthy downtown -- dentists, lawyers, even graphic designers or computer consultants.

Since 1980, the Main Street Program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation has been spearheading a national movement to revitalize America's downtowns. I'm a big fan of downtown rejuvenation, and I was recently asked to speak to one of the more than 1600 local Main Street associations about how to enliven their community.

I stressed that what's needed are the "Three C's" - Concept, Change, Collaboration.

1. Concept: Every successful enterprise needs a vision. Whether you're building an individual business or revitalizing an entire community, you need a clear sense of what you're trying to achieve. There's two parts to that concept:

  • Identity -- Every "brand" needs a personality, something consumers relate to. Unfortunately, many sleepy Main Streets already have a personality, and it's not attractive. So, a downtown association can't just choose an identity and hope the public accepts it. It takes work, time, physical improvements, and business development. It helps if you have an historic underpinning - the Main Street I addressed once was a railroad stop and the location of an early movie studio. Historic renovation of older buildings helps create a unique personality.
  • Anchor -- What's going to bring pedestrians downtown? Just as malls have anchor tenants (usually big department stores), downtowns need a draw. Movie theatres, museums, playhouses, restaurants, bookstores (especially with author events) all attract foot traffic. Both sides of the street also have to be visually interesting, with outdoor tables and seating, street trees, banners, perhaps a plaza.

2. Change: Even people who eagerly hope for a Main Street transformation often fear the inevitable changes. Long-time merchants fear higher rents. Residents fear increased traffic and noise. Indeed, both are likely to come. But what's the alternative?

Without planned growth, there will be NO growth. And where there's no growth, there's decay. Eventually, that leads to truly inappropriate development.

Residents and merchants alike have to get over the idea that they can keep things the way they are, with the exception of miraculously increasing the number of customers and the tax base. That's not the way it happens. If you want to live in a vibrant community, you have to remember what the word "vibrant" means -- lively! Where there's life there's noise.

3. Collaboration: When it comes to a downtown area, all boats rise and fall together. I'm surprised at the number of communities where neighborhood associations continually oppose the local merchant groups, and they both despise the realtors. That's a recipe for inaction and decline. Moreover, individual businesses have to stop thinking about their competitor as the enemy.

I remember speaking with a businesswoman who owned the only apparel store in a downtown area. When another dress shop announced it was opening across the street, she was livid. "You'll probably see business increase," I assured her. "After all, with two stores here, more women are likely to come to shop." Sure enough, a year later, she said my prediction was right, and she was actually delighted that a few more apparel stores were opening.

As for me, I've chosen to live in a town with a vibrant Main Street. I live downtown and my office is a pleasant nine-block walk away. Occasionally, I'm aggravated by some people on the street or cars turning around in my driveway. But I love the community feeling, and lots of people know me and my dog, Cosmo.

I'm part of a trend. Americans are tired of the same-ness of malls or the isolation of suburbs. They want to live in real communities. To help your downtown become part of this national trend, contact the Main Street Program at

Copyright Rhonda Abrams, 2003

Rhonda Abrams writes the nation's most widely-read small business column and is the author of The Successful Business Plan: Secrets & Strategies and The Successful Business Organizer.