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Effort aims to preserve historic downtown districts

The Main Street initiative is dedicated to revitalizing "downtown and neighborhood business districts throughout the U.S.," including many historic districts like Red Wing (above).

The Main Street initiative is dedicated to revitalizing "downtown and neighborhood business districts throughout the U.S.," including many historic districts like Red Wing (above).

By Brian Johnson
Dolan Media Newswires

Minneapolis — Shannan Harris has operated her gift and home accent shop, Moments on Main, in Red Wing’s historic business district for five years.

Simply put, she likes it there.

“We are located on a prime corner here on Main Street in Red Wing,” she said. “We can see the Mississippi River and we are on that prime thoroughfare that moves through our pretty little town. We are fortunate to be here.”

Like other business owners in the picturesque community across the river from Wisconsin, she has a stake in the future of the commercial district. That’s one reason she’s actively involved in the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Main Street program.

The Main Street initiative, which is dedicated to revitalizing downtown and neighborhood business districts throughout the U.S., including many historic districts, has a new statewide program in Minnesota.

The Minnesota program has designated local programs in four cities, including Red Wing.

On Aug. 17-18, trainers from around the country will descend on Red Wing to offer a program in Main Street principles. The trainers will touch on topics including preserving historic building facades and diversifying the district’s financing base.

Todd Barman, program officer with the National Trust Main Street Center in Washington, D.C., is among the trainers who will come to town.

“The training is primarily targeted to the … individuals who will be implementing a Main Street effort, or at least trying to follow the four-point approach to reviving historic districts,” Barman said.

The four points — organization, promotion, design, and economic restructuring — are the heart and soul of program.

The program stemmed from the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s interest in protecting and restoring and saving historic community structures in historic commercial districts, Barman said.

“Businesses were struggling. They had no money. Property owners had no money to put into buildings,” he said. “So (the National Trust) created the four points approach, which means we can’t just look at one aspect of what downtown is going through.”

Barman points to a number of Main Street success stories, including Chippewa Falls, Wis.

In the 10 years since Chippewa Falls became a Main Street community, the city’s downtown has seen a flurry of new investment, including 20 facade renovations, 130 building improvement projects and a healthy economic mix of retail and business establishments, according to the National Trust.

Minnesota, meanwhile, has had an on-again, off-again relationship with the Main Street program, which has been around since 1980.

Years ago, Minnesota cities such as Hastings used Main Street principles to help pump new life into their historic districts, but Minnesota opted out of the statewide program in the mid-1990s because of lack of money.

Many towns continued to have Main Street-type revitalization programs after the state program ceased to function, said Emily Northey, the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota’s Minnesota Main Street Coordinator.

Minnesota’s statewide program was reorganized this year as a nonprofit, which makes it less reliant on public money and opens the door to private money.

Red Wing was a logical choice to host the training event, which is the first official meeting of the latest iteration of Minnesota’s Main Street program.

The city of 16,000 boasts 25 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the majority of its downtown business district buildings were built between 1860 and 1910, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

In 2008, the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed the city as one of the nation’s dozen distinctive destinations.

John Becker, who has owned and operated Red Wing Framing & Fine Art Printing on Main Street since 2001, said the Main Street program provides structure and organization for small town community boosters.

It has buy-in from a cross-section of people in Red Wing, he said, including business people, preservation-minded people who are nostalgic about downtown and students who simply like hanging out downtown.

“It has been an easy sell that this is a good thing,” he said, “because it brings in so many resources and tools.”

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