Bringing the Crowd Back to Main Street

Across the country, there's a renewed focus on small downtowns and Main Streets.

Bozeman, Montana (Photo by Mike Cline / CC0)

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That’s the ebullient way that Bozeman, Montana’s Deputy Mayor Chris Mehl likes to respond to questions about which aspects of Bozeman are growing. “Everything is taking off,” he says. “We have about 4.5 million visitors a year because we’re right off the interstate,” he says.

To integrate Bozeman’s growth into the city’s formal vision for the future, commissioners approved a draft downtown improvement plan in April. The plan aims to keep downtown, and with it the city’s historic Main Street, the heart of the city.

Mehl, who used to work for a think tank, sees the plan as a smart strategy to maintain Bozeman’s small-town character. “Once you lose your historic downtown, it’s like heck to get it back because of WalMarts and Lowes located on the edge of town,” Mehl said.

While the future of the specific actions in Bozeman’s plan will require work — many items on the plan would require policy changes and funding — one thing is certain: It’s the most recent reflection of a renewed nationwide focus on small-town downtowns and Main Streets.

North Dakota’s newest governor ran on a platform that centered on a Main Street Initiative with the slogan “Putting Main Street to Work” at its helm. The tiny town of Water Valley, Mississippi (population 3,362), began an effort to revitalize its Main Street in 2016 that included restoring historic buildings and turning vacant buildings into new businesses. Today Water Valley’s downtown has its own coding bootcamp and a brewery to boot.

“In the last 10 to 20 years people [have become] increasingly mobile,” explains Patrice Frey, the CEO of Main Street America, a national organization that supports the revitalization of downtowns and neighborhood community districts across the country and works mostly with small towns and cities often in rural areas. “When [people] have choices they’re choosing to live or relocate to places that are amenity rich, meaning vibrant community corridors or vibrant downtowns that offer unique social experiences in terms of different kinds of services and retail and restaurant offerings.”

“In terms of economic opportunities, one of the things we see is investment in downtowns as absolutely essential to recruiting and retaining people, talent if you’d like” — something small towns and rural America has notoriously struggled with.

When it comes to Bozeman’s revitalization work in particular, Frey offers high praise for their efforts. “It’s a charming downtown and my sense is they’ve really made the most of the historic assets they have there and leveraged its charm and character to both residents and visitors,” she says.

The downtown plan, as well as a forthcoming update of the city’s larger Community Plan, came about as the city began to recover from the Great Recession.

“What’s happening is that we really started to grow again,” Mehl says. “When you grow for a number of years like we have and you see the changes in retail, there’s a real concern that we could lose what makes Bozeman special,” Mehl says, referring to the city’s downtown area in particular.

To capture this growth, the Downtown Bozeman Improvement Plan rests on five principles: maintaining downtown as the heart of Bozeman — yet focusing on more than just the Main Street Historic District. Ensuring that downtown is walkable and accessible. Designing downtown to be welcoming to everyone. And connecting it to both nature and culture.

There are concrete actions tied to each principle. Maintaining downtown Bozeman as the city center relies on regulating parking to balance supply as well as connecting downtown to other districts by increasing employment opportunities. Keeping downtown walkable and accessible requires maintaining clean and safe alleys and sidewalks and expanding access to transportation options including buses, biking, and parking.

Of course, any change can be uncomfortable for some residents, and Mehl is particularly attuned to those concerns. “Some of the neighbors who live close to downtown don’t want downtown to do it all,” Mehl says, referring to the historic area functioning as the sole epicenter of the city. Additionally, because the core of downtown is historic and can’t be largely changed, the plan will offer stronger incentives like reducing the amount of parking required for businesses relocating to nearby North 7th Avenue. “It’s five or six blocks away and walkable,” he says.

Frey of Main Street America says that in order for any downtown revitalization effort to be successful, buy-in from the city is critical.

From allowing streets to be shut down for fairs and other events to working with developers to meet city codes and the like, a partnership approach is practically essential for success. “Without that support, you can easily get a reputation of being [a place where it’s] difficult to get business done,” she says.

Further, “without careful management and planning, you can end up in a position where you’re inadvertently incentivizing … relocation on the urban fringe rather than concentrating development downtown. It’s a bunch of small things that can stand in the way of progress,” Frey notes.

A unique aspect of the effort to revitalize Main Streets and other small downtown areas is that, unlike efforts in bigger cities like Detroit and Las Vegas that have resulted in disastrous gentrification among other failures, cities like Bozeman and the like often don’t have the same issues — at least not to the same extent.

“[Gentrification] is absolutely a concern, but I’d qualify that and say that in most smaller places and in most rural places, gentrification is not the issue,” Frey says. “I can think of very few instances where we talked about displacement and gentrification being an issue.”

Instead, Frey notes, revitalizing small downtowns often leads to more positive effects. Particularly when housing is a focus, “creating some density means that it’s easier for the corner store and the local coffee shop to stay open — it’s a vital element.”

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Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, U.S. News & World Report,, and more. She holds an MA in Social Design, with a specialization in intervention design, from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a BA in Cultural Anthropology and Fine Art from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

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