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Demise of revitalization program felt by many

9/21/2012

By JOHN GREEN

By JOHN GREEN

Special to The Hays Daily News

Directors of local Main Street programs across Kansas were stunned Thursday morning with word the Kansas Main Street program was ending and its executive director laid off.

The Kansas Department of Commerce announced elimination of the 27-year-old state program, which has helped some two dozen Kansas communities revitalize downtowns and work to keep them vibrant, as part of a reorganization.

Discover Phillipsburg Main Street joined the program in 2009, and Russell Main Street was one of the oldest entities in the program, joining in 1992.

Details on what it will mean for a zero-interest loan program many of the communities have found vital for redevelopment is unclear. The 2012 Main Street conference scheduled for Oct. 17 to 19 in Emporia was canceled.

A letter from Commerce Secretary Pat George announcing the move was released late morning Thursday.

According to information on the National Trust for Historic Preservation website, Kansas now will become one of only about a dozen states without a state-level Main Street program.

"I hear anxious sighs going out around the state," said Marci Penner, director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation, an Inman-based nonprofit organization also dedicated to community revitalization.

"I've watched programs over the years and this is one of the most effective state programs there was for mid-sized towns," Penner said. "The training they give always gets an A-plus from everyone. They've helped restore a lot of buildings and kept a lot of small businesses going. It's been a great template and format for those towns."

"What's missing from the news release is how they will replace it," Penner said. "There are just a lot of questions going on around the state about what's going to happen next. What will replace it?"

Local Main Street programs didn't receive any operational funds from the state program, said Main Street Sterling Executive Director Mike Millikan, so it shouldn't directly impact individual program operations.

"We've just got the news," Millikan said. "We'll try to figure out where we go from here. But it's not the end of the Main Street program. There are 25 around the state and they all do a lot of things."

Lost incentives?

Shuttering of the office will end a longtime loan program called "Incentives Without Walls."

Individual Main Street organizations applied for the zero-interest loans of up to $20,000 each to assist businesses in the community with specific projects.

The money had to be matched, and as the loans were repaid, that money went back into a revolving loan account.

"We know there are communities that have active loans in their communities, with that money loaned out," said Department of Commerce spokesman Dan Lara. "We will be in communication with those communities about what will happen with those funds."

"I can't comment further about it, but we will be reaching out to them to let them know how we intend to work with that part of program," he said.

Millikan called the loan program "a big tool in our tool chest."

"But it's not the only one," he said. "There are other programs, like Network Kansas, and we can partner with other sources, banks and the USDA."

Millikan didn't know how much money the program has brought into Sterling, a Main Street community since 1998.

In Garden City, said Garden City Downtown Vision Executive Director Beverly Schmitz Glass, they've awarded 26 "IWW" loans since 2004, worth a cumulative $142,000. The loans were matched locally with $711,000.

"That's close to $1 million" that's gone into downtown that otherwise might not have been invested.

The funding was used for building facades, for computer software and new point-of-purchase programs, and even to help a business bring in a new product line, Schmitz Glass said.

"It really kept them viable and able to keep their doors open," she said. "I know new funds probably won't be coming in, but we hope we can keep the funds that are already in the community."

In Hutchinson, the loan program has awarded close to $250,000, both in original and second generation loans, "which has had a huge impact on our community," said Downtown Development Director Jim Seitnater.

Penner noted as she and her assistant director, WenDee LaPlant, who are traveling the state developing a new Kansas guidebook, "arrive in a downtown, we can predict if it's in the Main Street program."

"Because of certain attributes you see just driving through," Penner said. "It will have nice landscaping, building facades are looking good, there are more businesses filled. It just has a certain look. It's been so critical for those towns. ... It's hard to replace a program that's been so reliable."

Other losses

Other benefits of the program were less tangible, but as important, Schmitz-Glass said.

"We got evaluated every year," she said. "They'd say what we'd done well and what we need to work on. We were scheduled to go to Emporia for a symposium and awards banquet. We each submit a project we've done for the community award, or an individual who has really helped move the program forward. It may not sound like a big deal, but it reinforced to the community at large -- especially when we came back with a trophy saying we were doing something right -- that the program did have merit."

Like Penner, Schmitz-Glass praised the program's training, especially for new board members.

"We'd go to quarterly training and it would get us pumped up again," she said. "The programs covered anywhere from tax incentives to social media; how to keep Main Street fresh and keep things moving; how to put together different partnerships. There was great sharing across the state."

Dodge City Main Street Director Chelsey Fisher praised the technical services provided in getting the program in Dodge, now just in its third year, up and going.

"We're very thankful we got into it," Fisher said. "Kansas Main Street provided us with a vision ... and the confidence to see it through."

The loss of the efforts of the program director will be acutely felt, Seitnater said.

"We're especially disappointed and concerned for the executive director, Mary Helmer," he said. "She was a great worker and partner. She sunk her heart and soul into this program. She was an extremely hard worker and extremely dedicated to the program. We just wish her the best."

Immediately upon receiving word of the change, Schmitz-Glass said she got with her board and city officials, and has scheduled a meeting today with local economic development leaders to "look at what are our options."

A meeting also is being organized of Main Street directors, which will likely be in Hutchinson, as a central location, Schmitz-Glass said.

"We did not see this coming," Schmitz Glass said. "I'm a little surprised that they didn't at least extend it to the end of the year, to give local communities time to sit down with their boards and community officials, to see where we need to go."

"Will we come apart at the seams?" she asked. "Probably not. But that support system and knowledgeable base is gone. No one else at the state level truly understands how the program worked and what a difference it made."

"There's a lot of grass root effort that's gone into making Main Street in Kansas stronger," Seitnater said. "It may be a powerful enough force to keep things moving."

In the works

"It wasn't a sudden announcement," Commerce's Lara said. "We informed our stakeholders (Thursday). But it's something the secretary, in conjunction with the administration and our leadership team has been contemplating for a while.

"It was a very hard decision," Lara said. "Over the last 19 months we've gone through a series of transitions and restructuring to make the department smaller, more focused. Travel and Tourism is going out to Wildlife and Parks; earlier this year, we combined Rural Development with Business Development to form a new division. Today, we announced the Trade Division will no longer be separate, but will be combined with Business and Community Development.

"The reality is there will be smaller state and federal budgets moving forward," Lara said. "I can't speak for other agencies, but the Department of Commerce relies on a lot of federal funds, over 40 percent of our budget, and we anticipate that stream of funding may get smaller in the next couple of years. The other part of it is, we need to focus on our core functions. We want communities to know we're not abandoning our efforts to help revitalize communities, especially small ones."

Lara noted the state's Community Development Block Grant is substantially larger than the Main Street program, in terms of dollars invested, and the new Rural Opportunity Zone program is growing, while attracting international attention.

"It was a very difficult decision, but a necessary one in light of the budget and efforts to refocus our efforts," he said.