The Main Street America approach has been, and continues to be, rooted in a holistic approach to developing historic downtowns most commonly referenced as the 4 Points™- Design, Economic Vitality, Organization, and Promotion.
The National Main Street Center explains the fourth point, Promotion, this way :
Promoting Main Street takes many forms, but the ultimate goal is to position the downtown or commercial district as the center of the community and the hub of economic activity, while creating a positive image that showcases a community’s unique characteristics.
In August, I wrote about the importance of engagement to the health of our organizations and communities. We can blend community engagement and creating positive district image through Placemaking- creating places where people want to be, as defined by Max Musicant of the Musicant Group at our recent placemaking workshops held in Rice Lake, Port Washington and Platteville. Max and Sara Joy Proppe led attendees through a one-and-a-half-day workshop that taught them how to view spaces through a new lens and culminated in a placemaking installation that applied concepts learned the day before.
Placemaking is an effective promotion strategy as well. By bringing together community members to help shape spaces that draw people in, placemaking projects position the district as a center of activity. A noted thought leader in the movement since the 1990’s, Project for Public Spaces believes the success of placemaking projects relies on quick implementation to bring immediate benefits to spaces that can be measured for effectiveness and altered if necessary. They refer to this approach as “Lighter Quicker Cheaper” or LQC. As the Musicant Group demonstrated in the three Wisconsin communities, one does not need a lot of time to make change. In fact, after about one and a half hours of studying and analyzing the district, workshop attendees developed placemaking installations within a couple of hours, using low-budget materials to make an immediate change.
Let’s explore the three projects a little further.
Rice Lake, located in Barron County, is a regional hub. Its Main Street is the former Highway 53 before a bypass was constructed. This means Rice Lake’s Main Street is four lanes of travel plus curbside parallel parking on either side. Suffice it to say that a concern in the downtown is the speed at which cars travel through the district. Prior to the workshop, it was determined that attendees would construct parklets on either side of Main Street with the goals of showing activity and hopefully slowing traffic for a stretch.
The idea of a parklet is new in Rice Lake, so Kathy Wellsandt, director of Rice Lake Main Street Association, had some advance work to do with the decision-makers in the city. In the end, they granted permission for two temporary parklet installations. The police department even ran speed checks in an unmarked vehicle before, during and after the installation to gauge impact. Kathy collected donated materials for the exercise and purchased some others, but with the goal of a minimal budget for the project. On installation day, attendees, which included locals and community representatives from around WI, were divided into two groups. They worked together to design and construct parklets on site.
Port Washington targeted an underutilized public space next to its marina for the placemaking exercise. One group was assigned a green space, and the second group was charged with enhancing a space at the water’s edge. Supplies were a mishmash of items scoured from a local construction site and a quick trip through the craft aisles in a local store. But what ensued was magical—not just for the ideas but because of the way in which participants fed to expand their ideas.
The green space team developed a “selfie station,” or photo opportunity, with the marina as a backdrop. Paying homage to Port Washington’s nautical history, the team constructed a boat in which to take a photo from craft paper, duct tape, paper plates and wooden dowels. The paper prototype showed local leaders what “could be” in that spot to engage visitors without investing thousands of dollars.
The other group also used Port Washington’s nautical and fishing history to create activity along the water. They designed activities for kids to include a “fish pull” made from construction paper, yarn and paper plates, as well as a replica of a ship’s bridge, complete with a working steering wheel, made from pipe cleaners, paper plates, a dowel and duct tape. This group also developed a wayfinding system drawn on the sidewalk with chalk to call attention to local attractions that may have otherwise been missed.
Platteville Main Street knew they wanted to build a parklet in their downtown to bring much needed greenery to the district. They had arranged for volunteers to build a platform to raise the parklet even with the sidewalk. While awaiting the build to be completed, workshop attendees were separated into two groups, once again. The first group needed to create an interactive sidewalk while the second needed to create engaging storefronts that faced the parklet.
Once again there was no shortage of creativity. The sidewalk group developed bubble wrap hopscotch, balloon tree light poles, and sidewalk games. The storefront gang ran with the theme of recycling and promoting walking/biking in the community. A separate “breakout” even marked out a bike lane in the downtown out of duct tape.
All three groups had a different purpose, but some common themes emerged. The work showed activity in the downtown. While in Rice Lake, I was scouting supplies when a teenager approached me to ask what was going on down the street. I told him that we were creating parklets and asked if he knew what they were. He nodded his head to indicate that he did, and followed with, “This is really happening in downtown Rice Lake? Cool!” Also in Rice Lake, I had a chance to invite a passerby to sit and chat with me in the parklet. I asked her opinion on the installation and if she would like to see something like this regularly in the downtown. Sandy and I talked for almost 15 minutes as she told me all about her kids and grandkids. Then she discovered a coffee shop downtown which she had not known about. These are just two examples of promoting a positive image in the district.
But what else did we learn? An overarching lesson from all three communities was that people didn’t have to know each other to work together. Outside of Joe, Errin and I, the attendees had never worked side by side before—but they quickly started to share ideas to make their spaces more engaging while each new thought emerged from the one before. We also witnessed that one gender does not have an edge over the other when it comes to creativity.
We also learned that something significant could come from a little financial investment. Outside of Platteville’s lumber for their parklet, the financial commitment in the communities was minimal. PPS’s “Lighter Quicker Cheaper” mantra came to life before our very eyes.
In three Wisconsin communities, we learned that placemaking is a vehicle for engaging the public while creating a positive image for the district. More pictures from the three workshops can be found on our Wisconsin Main Street Facebook page. If you attended the workshop and would like some placemaking coaching in your community, or if you couldn’t attend but it sounds like something you want to explore for your district, email me, email@example.com.