By Charles Pollock

Much has been written lately, including in the opinion pages of The Daily Item, about what I call the regional imperative: the need for communities to work together to make each other more vibrant. Since I’m a great believer myself, I applaud the Greater Susquehanna Valley Chamber of Commerce for recently convening representatives of five nearby “Main Street” programs – the Danville Business Alliance, Lewisburg Downtown Partnership, Mifflinburg Heritage and Revitalization Association, Selinsgrove Projects Inc. and Sunbury Revitalization Inc. – as well as the Columbia-Montour Visitors Bureau and Susquehanna Valley Visitors Bureau.

The purpose of the day was to educate volunteer board members about the time-tested “Main Street Approach,” a proven, though flexible, set of guidelines for downtown development and redevelopment. Bringing together organizations that seemingly compete for downtown customers was truly noteworthy, but it really shouldn’t shock us at all.

Countless businesses in countless industries have learned to play off each others’ strengths, and downtowns should be no different. Attracting shoppers, visitors and homebuyers is not altogether a zero-sum game. A stronger Milton can strengthen Lewisburg and vice versa. Ditto for Selinsgrove and Danville, Sunbury and Mifflinburg, and many other possible combinations.

Main Street Approach
Of course, each community ultimately has to be very smart about its own knitting, so I also applaud the embracing throughout this area of the Main Street Approach. This is centered on having a strong, professional manager for the downtown (what mall wouldn’t have a manager?), and having that manager working hand-in-glove with a well-structured volunteer organization. Then the combined effort must be focused on business retention and recruitment, “branding” and promoting the particular downtown’s unique set of appeals, and historic preservation.

To use the example with which I’m most familiar, which is Lewisburg and its eight-year-old Downtown Partnership, the town can thank the organization for its role in keeping Market Street storefronts fully occupied, for numerous façade renovations, for a full array of events and festivals throughout the year, and for Lewisburg’s compelling online presence at www.lewisburgpa.com.

The Partnership’s role in effecting these things is often indirect. The best metaphor for the Partnership’s work is chemical catalysis. The Partnership has been the change-agent for a multitude of projects, including the current collaboration between Bucknell University and downtown merchants that not only has produced direct benefits (student foot traffic in Market Street shops, for example), but also has led to additional joint endeavors, such as a residential neighborhood improvement program that brings together Bucknell, the Borough of Lewisburg, private citizens, and others.

Susquehanna River
In the next few years, the Lewisburg Downtown Partnership will focus on creating the best possible business mix for Lewisburg in the core commercial district, increasing the downtown’s user-friendliness in various ways, including parking, pedestrian movement, and signage. The Partnership will also work to reconnect Lewisburg to the Susquehanna River, both physically and psychologically. The result will be a community attractive to the rising “creative class,” representing the workers and work of the 21st century, as well as the area’s traditional and much-prized residents.

Lewisburg’s success will enhance other communities in several ways, including the provision of “best practices” to other volunteer-based organizations working to advance their towns. Equally important will be the synergy between and among communities, which gets stronger and stronger as each piece on the playing board acquires new luster.

Each Main Street program requires local funding, whether to match state grants or to support the development effort entirely when state funding is no longer is available. The Partnership is currently spearheading a $300,000 ‘Campaign for Lewisburg’ which will fully fund the organization from 2008-2010. It is my hope that every citizen and business will play a role, by contributing financial support, as well as volunteer effort.

Making excellent sense
When one stops to think about likely outcomes when serious effort isn’t being made to preserve or revive downtowns – the physical deterioration, the loss of a social hub, the decline in property values and business fortunes, or the drying up of the necessary stream of potential new residents – I believe that support for the Lewisburg Downtown Partnership or Selinsgrove Projects Inc. or the rest of the Main Street programs hereabouts, makes excellent sense.

I hope readers will take a moment to do that thinking, and will then respond generously when asked to support downtowns throughout the Susquehanna Valley.

(Charles Pollock, the vice president for external relations at Bucknell University, is the founding president of the Lewisburg Downtown Partnership and vice president of the Pennsylvania Downtown Center board of directors.)

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