Main Street and open space: Smart growth at work in rural areas

Downtown Paris, Texas. Photo by William Bova.

Towns and cities across the country in all types of areas – rural, suburban as well as urban – can use smarter development strategies to create stronger, more vibrant communities. Such was the topic of a discussion at the National Building Museum in Washington, DC, on Thursday. Anna Read of the International City/County Management Association and Stephanie Bertaina of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Sustainable Communities discussed strategies that can help guide growth in rural areas while protecting natural and working lands and preserving rural character.

Read and Bertaina identified a number of benefits rural areas can reap by incorporating smart growth strategies. Smaller towns and cities often struggle to maintain open space and small-town character while still benefiting from development, and though growth can bring the economic opportunity many rural areas want, it can also bring traffic congestion and other conflicts. The speakers acknowledged these sometimes conflicting needs and explained how smart growth strategies can help towns strike a delicate balance. Smart growth strategies help create an economic climate that enhances working lands and conserves natural lands, while protecting downtowns and Main Streets and helping those valuable assets thrive. In doing so, smart growth strategies can help build vibrant, enduring neighborhoods that people, especially young people, want to live in.

One example of this principle in action is the Texas Historical Commission (THC). Through its Texas Main Street Program, THC helps communities across Texas capitalize on their unique, authentic character. For many small businesses in the state, the Texas Main Street Program is a key to survival. As Britin Bostick, who sits on the Paris, TX, Main Street Advisory Board and chairs the downtown economic restructuring committee, explained to the Daily Yonder, THC’s Main Street revitalization effort provided “a necessary framework for us to build our downtown.”

“Most of the businesses near the square are small, independently owned,” said Bostick. “And, for the businesses to work, a lot of these great old buildings have to be rehabbed. But can you do that and still make money to support your family?” Bostick contends that the work to develop historic town properties is “is about helping young families and young businesses succeed in the heart of our community.”

By focusing development in Paris’s existing historic neighborhoods, THC’s program has not only helped local businesses survive but has also attracted a heritage tourism industry to the region as well. It’sdesigned to help communities build local relationships and structures to support, sustain, enliven and celebrate their respective downtowns, by nurturing businesses through grant-writing, identifying buildings available for adaptive reuse, recruiting new businesses, and developing local incentive programs.

For more information about these and other strategies for rural areas, download ICMA and the Smart Growth Network’s 2010 report, “Putting Smart Growth to Work in Rural Communities.”

Budget Cuts May Gouge Texas Main Streets [Daily Yonder, 3/25/11]