Planning May 2019

National Planning Excellence Award for Planning Pioneers

Queen of Main Street

Mary Means | Silver Spring, Maryland

Illustration by Jeffrey Smith.

Illustration by Jeffrey Smith.

By Ruth Eckdish Knack, FAICP

When describing this year's Planning Pioneers Award Recipient, nominator Miguel Vazquez, AICP, puts it best: "When it comes to the main street revitalization movement in rural, suburban, and urban communities, Mary Means is second to none."

An award-winning innovator, practitioner, teacher, and mentor, Means has spent her career empowering urban and rural communities to revive their old town centers, transform local economies, and improve overall quality of life for residents.

"She is a true visionary," says Vazquez, "who offered a road map for locally owned, locally driven prosperity."

Planning sat down with Means in March. An edited version of that interview appears below.

What got you started in historic preservation?

My father was an architect in Atlanta, where I grew up. He took us on family vacations to all sorts of historic places. Early on, I developed a sense that these were places I wanted to be. When I was in college, I got a summer job in Philadelphia working for the state preservation office. That led to a job in D.C. with the National Register of Historic Places.

Where does Main Street come in?

In 1973, the National Trust invited me to open a small office in Chicago covering 11 states. My marching orders were "to make preservation happen in the Midwest." As I started looking around, I saw that the recurring problems were pretty evident, particularly in small towns, where businesses were moving to outlying shopping centers. I became interested in the challenges these places presented.

Remember, this was before the internet. Town leaders were isolated and had little information. They could see their downtowns were obsolete. Federal money was available for pedestrian malls, not for main streets. The advice from the feds was to clear out the old and start over. We were losing lots of wonderful buildings.

How did you respond?

My tiny staff and I had to figure out what might work. We looked at what other parts of the U.S. and other countries were doing. One example was Corning in upstate New York, where Corning Glass was preserving downtown buildings to make the town more attractive to potential employees.

One morning the idea formed: Work with three towns, write a book, have some conferences, make a film — and do it all in three years.

The National Endowment for the Arts gave us our first grant. We chose three Midwestern towns with the potential of improving their downtowns. By then, we knew we had to have a National Trust project manager in each town. We had to raise money for that. As luck would have it, a national building materials company was looking for good publicity and agreed to fund our project if we made the film first.

Probably, the most serendipitous thing was to call our endeavor the Main Street Project. The media loved it. That's how I learned about branding.

Main Street by the Numbers

$74.73 billion reinvested

276,790 buildings rehabilitated

614,716 jobs created

138,303 businesses started

Data Since 1980. Source: Main Street America

How did you pick the first three places?

Our criteria specified that the winning towns had to have populations of 5,000 to 50,000 and had to have authentic historic features. We got applications from towns in 10 midwestern states. We conducted site visits and eventually chose Hot Springs, South Dakota; Galesburg, Illinois; and Madison, Indiana and worked with them for three years.

Next, we set out to find local leaders who were truly interested in making changes and helped them organize. We listened to them — really listened — and provided technical assistance from architects and development coaches.

Changes started to happen almost immediately. Seeing visible improvement and new business starts got people to change their perceptions of their towns. Helping them to do that was probably the number-one thing we did right.

The second thing had to do with money. We got the downtown building owners to chip in with what someone called "a lot of little." Instead of big and expensive projects, we stuck with incremental changes. That approach was key to our early success, and it put preservation into the grasp of many more towns.

By the time our award-winning film (Main Street) came out in 1979, we knew a lot more about the "how" of creating a livable downtown. We had documented it with numbers and before-and-after photos. The film was shown on PBS and all over the U.S. People could see that their downtowns could return to life.

But the main reason for our success was the position of downtown project manager. It was the manager who brought people together locally and worked out solutions for all sorts of issues.

Family-owned Tony’s Fish Market is part of Oregon City, Oregon’s Downtown Oregon City Association, which joined the Main Street America program in 2008. Photo by Adam Wickham.

Family-owned Tony's Fish Market is part of Oregon City, Oregon's Downtown Oregon City Association, which joined the Main Street America program in 2008. Photo by Adam Wickham.

What was next for the program?

In 1980, the Main Street managers and I moved to the National Trust office in D.C. to scale the program. We trained project managers in a six-state and 30-town network. A grant from the Economic Development Administration let us create a pilot program for larger cities where the challenges are more complex.

It was not our intent to stay in business for long. But we learned from the start that Main Street meant more to people than just preservation. Bringing it back touched something bigger. Now, 40 years later, the program has expanded across the U.S. Plus, demographic changes have created a booming market for vibrant downtowns. Everyone wants to work, live, or just hang out in them.

What do you think made the Main Street program successful?

I think it was the conceptual framework that is the four-point approach: Good organization, active promotion, basic design principles, and realistic economic restructuring ("Don't wait for the department store to come back; think about converting upper floors of downtown buildings to apartments").

It also expressed our practical approach to preservation in a living community. A restored building is not enough. It has to be able to earn its keep. It also helped that about the same time, the federal and state historic preservation tax credits came along and injected private capital into scores of downtowns.

You left the National Trust in the mid-1980s for the consulting world. What have you been up to since?

I've always loved working with places that have historic character, and that has remained my main point of reference as a consultant. I have a particular interest in promoting heritage tourism and in helping diverse groups of people find common ground around a shared vision — and then overcoming inertia, and getting started. I am now working on a book about what I have learned from the Main Street experience.

Mary Means

LOCATION: Silver Spring, Maryland

ABOUT: Founder of the original Main Street Program at the National Trust for Historic Preservation and respected planning and heritage development consultant for more than 40 years.

IMPACT: Main Street's four-point program (economic restructuring, organization, promotion, and design) has and continues to guide the revitalization of downtowns in communities throughout the U.S.

JURY COMMENTS: Means's far-reaching legacy in historic preservation and community revitalization through the Main Street program has helped, and continues to help, thousands of communities across the country.


Learn more and watch the award video.

Ruth Eckdish Knack is a former executive editor of Planning.