Like a dying cow town filled with tumbleweeds, the retailing core of Southbridge, Mass., was nearly emptied when shopping malls mushroomed on the edge of town, luring local customers away. The merchants of Southbridge, though, are now luring the customers back.

They did it with the help of National Main Street Center (NMSC), a special program of The National Trust for Historic Preservation, which assists preservation projects. The center is helping about 150 communities to revitalize the economic climate of downtown areas. They hope to reverse the trend favoring malls, which have been growing 62% faster than retail sales in general since 1978, according to one study.

"Most downtown independents are mom-and-pops," says Thomas Lutz, program associate at NMSC. "Their major problem is a lack of solidarity. In malls, merchants have the assistance of managers who work for a collective. The managers take care of marketing, environmental amenities, and advertising for the entire mall. In downtowns there is usually no collective force. Retailers must fend for themselves. They haven't the capitalization of a national chain to fall back on, or training and support from a main office."

Lutz says redevelopment efforts must focus on the main strength of independents: a tradition of customer service, often absent in mall chain stores, that builds consumer loyalty. Still, that quality will go unnoticed until downtown merchants attract residents with promotional events like sidewalk sales and craft fairs. Beyond that, the area must have visual or physical unity to identify it as a retail center, and merchants must rally behind a strong local leader.

In Southbridge's three-year-old program, business owners formed a merchant's association and solicited grants from the Trust to renovate older buildings. They also developed such merchandising tools as a Christmas parade to attract residents to the main street and recruited new retailers to create a better mix of shops. One veteran retailer claims that the program completely reversed a downward trend. And a new recruit says, "We decided to locate in Southbridge because the word was around that people who live here shop here."