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In Historic Town Centers Beauty is More than Skin Deep

Amid widespread decline and disinvestment, numerous small towns and rural communities throughout the US have taken action to restore their downtown as the focal point for economic, social, and civic activity in the region.

Downtown revitalization approaches—such as the widely adopted “Main Street Program”—typically operate from the principle of “if you build it, they will come,” requiring community leaders, business owners, and volunteers to invest their resources and efforts in a vision that is hoped for, but not guaranteed. This involves capital investment toward building rehabilitation and corridor beautification, as well as less tangible investments of time and coordination toward promoting downtown, organizing events, and managing limited resources. 

But does it work? The continuing popularity of the Main Street Program—with 1,500+ participants and counting—would suggest that downtown revitalization programs are, to some degree, effective. For many policymakers, however, anecdotal data is not sufficient to justify the investment of time and resources required to engage in revitalizing downtown.

In a pair of recent articles, I examined the quantitative effect of the Main Street Program. The first study focused on job growth, finding that small towns in Iowa gained new retail jobs and establishments in the years after adopting the program. In the other study, I focused instead on residential property values, finding that homebuyers placed a higher premium on homes located closer to downtown districts with an active Main Street Program. Together, the two studies provide evidence for the idea that revitalization efforts go a lot further than simply beautifying a town’s historic business district. Vibrant downtowns are building momentum as places where people increasingly desire to live and work, creating the conditions for strong rural economies to flourish.

Van Leuven, Andrew J. . “In Historic Town Centers Beauty is More Than Skin Deep“. Southern Ag Today 2(19.5). May 6, 2022. Permalink

Assistant Professor of Community and Rural Development

Oklahoma State University, Department of Agricultural Economics