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Downtown revitalization must be grassroots effort

Maybe we can blame it on The Andy Griffith Show for creating the perfect community of Mayberry with its perfect streets and friendly residents or the beautiful impressionist paintings of streets in Paris, but whatever the cause, we have a deep love and ideal for downtowns. We have all heard the story about how active the main street was back before the interstate or before the rise of superstores and we hope for their nostalgic return.

Economic changes, commuting patterns, transportation options and societal preferences have affected the life of many downtowns. Many have seen some transition of merchants out of the downtown or a change in residential preference to the downtown. As each situation is specific to its respective community, needs and visions become the responsibility of that community. Throughout Cumberland County, many downtowns have experienced economic growth and decline patterns. When economic decline becomes a creeping issue or an already massive white whale, community leaders and residents must take up mission to combat the decline in a way that gives a sense of place and utility for current residents.

“Downtown Revitalization” is the name given to these efforts. The term “revitalization” is defined as “to give new life to”. It is not a term that places a community into cardiac arrest or in the coffin ready for burial. It does not imply that previous leadership or generations were the cause of a problem or that they contributed to it. It is simply a term that says that all things change over time and an opportunity has presented itself for new energy and vision. When these efforts begin, they must begin within the community. Outside help is wonderful, but the community must be interested and invested in seeking something new. We do not truly change our habits because we are told to; we only create true change when we, ourselves, decide to change. Downtowns are exactly the same way.

In a number of instances, communities who find themselves ready to explore revitalization look for outside assistance to gather their thoughts into some actionable items. Creating a plan is a valuable idea considering the lifecycle of a downtown and its revitalization are most likely going to be much longer than our own. Plans, when thought through, allow for new community members and future generations to have a guide that remains a constant throughout transitions. These plans can be incredibly comprehensive or specific. There is no standard plan.

Revitalization plans do not come without some cost and how communities fund their plans is just as unique as the plans themselves. In decades past, funding for downtown planning and design was rather abundant. The economic climate of today and unfulfilled expectations from some previous efforts have changed the availability of funds. Communities need to bring their enthusiasm, a group of dedicated volunteers and some financial resources to the table when seeking grants for revitalization efforts.

Commitment to be good stewards of public funding is critical from not only the municipal perspective, but from the state and federal. When a community brings matching funds to the table in their search for additional public funds, their applications receive more attention and higher chances of funding.

Beyond community volunteers and access to capital, revitalization is dependent on the willingness and capacity of the municipal government. Often the enthusiasm of creating a plan forgets that the plan will need implementation. Even the most intelligent, successful and passionate volunteers cannot be part of the day-to-day municipal management that needs to manage funding and move larger projects forward. Assessing the internal capacity of a municipality is key and bringing elected officials to the table helps revitalization move steadily ahead. Municipalities need to be active partners with their communities and find ways to help residents achieve their revitalization goals. This may require some adjustments, but new life has always been worth it in the end. As Cumberland County communities find their revitalization rhythm, plenty of partners are available to give advice and share ideas. The road to revitalization is not a lonely one, but if no one is willing to even step up they will never find the other participants or reach the end goal.

-Mary Kuna

Cumberland Area Economic Development Corporation

This editorial was published in the February Cumberland Valley Business Journal

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