Erin Jamison-Koenig, Communications Director
Since its inception in 1985, the Indiana Main Street Program has been assisting cities and towns in every corner of Indiana revitalize the appearance, economy, and image of their downtown commercial district. Managed by the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs (OCRA), the program offers guidance in downtown revitalization, provides access to information, and helps guide community and individual support and relations.
With 15 nationally accredited main streets and 22 Indiana accredited main streets, Indiana Main Street communities accomplished impressive numbers in 2022: 280 new businesses, 1,218 full and part time jobs created, 328 building rehabilitation projects, and 208 public improvement projects.
As part of the program, daylong events take place every year in a handful of communities. These Main Street Community Exchanges are designed to bring the accredited communities together to discuss best practices, new ideas, and common struggles while highlighting the host community.
“It’s probably one of the best events we put on every year,” said Andrea Kern, OCRA Director of Strategic Initiatives. “People really walk away feeling like ‘I always felt so behind or I’m not accomplishing what I need to be accomplishing.’ And then they realize, my neighbors are all in the same boat. We’re all struggling with the same issues, or I just learned from someone that had a different take that I’ve never thought about before.”
Held on Fridays, the event is essentially a mini conference in the community and is designed to showcase the community as a whole. Kern emphasized that “you’re not just going there for an event. You are getting an inside tour and discussion.”
Host communities are able to recover their costs by charging a reasonable price that covers lunch and room rental fees. To demonstrate the community value, OCRA asks attendees to total how much they spent in the community. The impact of the food, services, lodging, and shopping on the community can demonstrate the importance of having a vibrant and attractive downtown destination.
Main Street communities have to apply to be a host community through OCRA and rank their desired educational topics. Working with the Office, the agenda is designed with a mixture of speakers from Main Street America and the local community, possibly including the mayor, board president, and small business owners. The day typically includes a “behind the scenes” tour of the downtown destination.
While accredited communities need to send at least one person to one exchange a year to maintain their status, communities often send a large group to multiple exchanges throughout the year. The event has become so popular, that for spacing issues many of the locations need to limit the number of attendees.
The 2023 Community Exchange Series kicked off in Rushville with over 30 communities represented by almost a hundred participants at the February event. The next Community Exchange will take place in Lebanon on May 5 before heading to Terre Haute (August 11) and Jasper (November 3).
Rushville hosted the Heart of Rushville Community Exchange at Rushville City Center, with agenda items that included an OCRA update, two Rushville presentations, and a local business panel discussion. There was plenty of time to get out in the community – an hour-long downtown tour was slotted after lunch at a local restaurant. Participants were also encouraged to show up the night prior for an axe-throwing event and stay after the conclusion on Friday to explore the area.
Mayor Mike Pavey and Director of Special Projects Brian Sheehan presented about Rushville’s transformation over the last 15 years and the impact it has had on the area. In the early 2000s, downtown had lost many businesses and boarded up storefronts were commonplace. Through a blighted property initiative and 2016 Stellar Designation, the city took the approach of accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative. In a timeline of events over the past twenty years, Pavey demonstrated the substantial progress the community made while also discussing the hiccups that occurred along the journey, such as closing of stores and razing of entire blocks.
Pavey and Sheehan made sure to credit the partnerships, community pride, and youth engagement as a major part of Rushville’s success, ending with “Get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats.” Heart of Rushville President Joe Rathz continued the discussion on partnerships with his afternoon presentation.
At the end of the day, Sheehan touted the importance of Indiana Main Street to Rushville, “When I talk to someone from another community, I always ask they have a Main Street. If they don’t, I tell them that they have to start there. It gives you another in to OCRA and the dollars that follow through the programs. If you’re spinning your wheels, the easiest way to get traction is to learn about OCRA and Indiana Main Street.”