Cornerstones Blog

Saving Main Street: Eleven Ideas for Spurring Investment in Downtown Businesses

Does it feel like every time you walk downtown one more storefront is vacant? Combating the downward momentum of vacancy and neglect is no easy feat. Here are eleven ideas for spurring investment in downtown businesses that can put your town on a path toward revitalization.

  1. Establish a business-to-business marketplace.  The Let’s Do Business, Tulsa! online directory matches local buyers with local sources, helping businesses gain exposure, build sales, and save money.
  2. Host a pitchfest. Pitchfests showcase local entrepreneurs, connecting them with local investors and community members. See a showcase in action—watch this video from Seacoast Local’s first entrepreneur showcase.
  3. Launch a Downtown Development Revolving Loan Fund. Revolving loan funds can spur commercial redevelopment by offering below-market rate financing to municipalities and downtown authorities to fund capital projects.
  4. Organize a "Let’s Paint the Town” initiative. Princeton, Kentucky invited business owners and volunteers to roll up their sleeves and participate in downtown revitalization by restoring and painting building facades.
  5. Offer co-working space for startups and telecommuters. Veel Hoeden, a co-working space in rural Pella, Iowa, brings home-based professionals and independent contractors together under one roof.
  6. Create a community investment cooperative. The Sangudo Opportunity Development Co-operative in Alberta, Canada collects local money by selling membership and investment shares to community members. Funds are used to buy, rehab, and manage commercial and residential property.
  7. Link downtown businesses through technology. Dubbed the “internet of small businesses”, Supportland creates mini networks for attracting and retaining local customers.
  8. Build a local investing network. Local Investing Opportunities Network (LION) in East Jefferson County, Washington is a member-based organization that helps build investment-ready local businesses and connect those businesses with investors.
  9. Put together a Nearby gift registry. Nearby allows couples and expecting parents to create an online registry of items and services from local businesses. 
  10. Start a community email listDrew’s List is a hyperlocal email list for South Whidbey Island, Washington with over 4,500 subscribers (about half the island population). Weekly emails highlight downtown events, sales and other activities.
  11. Establish a Main Street, LLC. To combat the downward momentum of blight, Rick Hauser, Mayor of Perry, New York and owner of In. Site: Architecture developed Main Street, LLC, a community-wide for-profit development corporation. Main Street, LLC recognizes the quantitative and qualitative benefits of reversing blight and urges people to “put their money where their house is.”

On May 15, Rick Hauser joined CommunityMatters® and the Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design™ for a 60-minute webinar. He offered new insights into a longstanding challenge for towns and small cities—getting the ball rolling to overcome vacancy and neglect in key downtown locations.

Watch the webinar recording:

Image credit: WoodleyWonderworks, Flickr Creative Commons,

Keying in on What Matters Most

In Laconia, New Hampshire, nearly 100 residents turned out recently to weigh in on the things that matter most to them about their lakeside town.

Laconia is in the midst of a Community Heart & Soul ™ project called Reimagine Laconia that aims to inform the town's master plan. In the months leading up to the community meeting, volunteers fanned out across the community gathering stories and input from a broad range of residents in the city’s three main neighborhoods. The aim now was to learn how well the emerging Heart & Soul themes were aligning with community sentiment.

Using keypad polling, attendees were asked to rank ten shared Heart & Soul themes:  community character; sense of community; connectivity; a healthy, beautiful environment; a strong economy; an engaging responsible accessible government; demographic diversity; a safe community; quality of life; a positive story.

Getting answers and seeing results in real time engaged the audience, turning observers into participants in a way that would have been challenging with a group this size. Keypad polling also allowed everyone and every viewpoint to be “heard,” even those not comfortable speaking at a public meeting.  

The polling showed that three community themes rose to the top: a strong economy; a healthy, beautiful environment; a safe community. These were also the three areas that respondents felt the city could make progress on in the near future.

Overall, the meeting affirmed that the Heart & Soul team was on the right track in characterizing Laconia’s heart and soul. The event also yielded another positive outcome, perhaps less expected.

“Judging from our feedback, the most valuable aspect of the keypad polling event was the transparent process,” said Brandee Loughlin, assistant planner with the city. “People really liked witnessing the results in real-time, right in front of them.  It went a long way to building that trust in the process and in the information we had been sharing.”  

How Volunteer Deb Files Makes A Difference Every Day

image of Deb Files

Last month the Spirit of Amercia Foundation honored Deb Files for her volunteerism in Gardiner, Maine. She was among 99 Kennebec County residents recognized. Files is active in several endeavors that support her hometown and embodies the notion that engaging community members through Community Heart & Soul™ inspires residents to get involved. 

Files is a multi-tasker when it comes to giving her time. She's involved in everything from cash mobs that support downtown businesses to selling books for the local library and raising money for residents displaced by a recent fire. Files counts among her mentors Meaghan Carlson, who was project coordinator for Gardiner Heart & Soul, a two-year project that wrapped up at the end of 2014.  Carlson inspired her to jump feet first into the community, Files says. 

"It's all because I love where I live, I love the people and the feeling that I AM able to make a difference to someone each day," Files says." I was very reluctant to take credit at first, but I now see that by sharing, others can be inspired and the more folks who share what they have to give the greater Gardiner can be!"

Files volunteer work includes:

  • Gardiner Cash Mob: Files founded and organizes monthly events that encourage people to support downtown businesses. "I started out with them as a way to draw attention to local shops during the winter slump, and found so many reasons to continue, including that my teens feel empowered to help and have a real investment in our community," Files said. 
  • Buy Local, Get it in Gardiner: She also uses her social media savvy to maintain a Facebook page for this co-operative advertising program parented by Gardiner Main Street that was initially funded with grant money from Orton after that town's Community Heart & Soul™ project concluded in 2014.
  • Gardiner Library Association: Book It! Pre-Owned Books is a book shop in the back of Lisa's Legit Burritos that Files, together with her son,  keeps stocked and tidy. Sales benefit the public library. 
  • Gardiner Main Street: Files is co-chair of the team that puts on an array of events in town, from Swine & Stein Oktoberfest and Loving Local, a new event that happened in February complete with snow sculptures and Valentines around the city. She's collaborating with others to create Haunted Gardiner that ties the town's history to the present. 
  • Gardiner Fire Fund Disbursement Committee: After 28 low-income disabled residents lost their homes in a fire, Files got involved in fundraising for the displaced. More than $35,000 has been raised and additional events are planned. 
  • Gardiner Farmers' Market: She is manager of this seasonal market. 

Read more about the award in the Kennebec Journal.

Image: Joe Phelan, Kennebec Journal

Five Things You Can Do Today to Start Discovering Your Town's Heart & Soul


Did you catch our Heart & Soul Training:  Intro to Building Better Communities on February 26th?  If not you can watch the webinar. (See below.)

Intro to Building Better Communities provides an overview of Community Heart & Soul and how it transforms rural towns and small cities with our signature barn-raising approach to community planning and development. 

In the meantime, here are some things you can do NOW to set you on the path to discovering your community’s heart and soul.   

Here are five things you can do today: 

1.  Start noticing who and what makes up your community.  Go outside of your usual patterns:

  • Drive a different way home to check out new neighborhoods.
  • Take a walk during lunch hour and observe your surroundings.  Notice the sidewalks, buildings, trees, houses, green spaces, a river or other natural features and consider whether they benefit your community or detract from it.

2.  Step out of your comfort zone:

  • Sincerely compliment a stranger.
  • Ride the bus (if you don’t already—if so, a different line) and do some people watching.
  • Go to an event such as a festival or game dinner that you have never experienced.  Who is there you’ve never met? Do you run into friends you haven’t seen in months or even years? Did you feel welcome?

3.  Start noticing how the people in your community fall into different groups, clubs, and faith based organizations, etc. Observe how and if they interact and communicate.

4.  Invite your friends and/or colleagues to coffee (or even an adult beverage) to learn what they love about where they live and how they'd like to make it better.

5. Download the free Community Heart & Soul Field Guide!

Here's the webinar:

A Day to Remember Heart & Soulmates


On Valentine's Day, Albert and Elizabeth Conary of Gardiner, Maine, come to mind. The couple was honored with Gardiner's Heart & Soulmate Award last year for their devotion to Gardiner. Every day, the couple makes the rounds to downtown shops. Here they are on Water Street on June 5, 2013 in downtown Gardiner. Image: Joe Phelan.

Ohio Town Selected as First Community Heart & Soul™ Project in Midwest

image of McComb

McComb, Ohio has been selected for a Community Heart & Soul™ project, the foundation’s first Midwestern town. Orton is partnering with the Findlay-Hancock County Community Foundation on the two-year community development project.

McComb, a small town in northwest Ohio, was selected in a competitive process to receive a $130,000 Community Foundation grant for the project. The project is envisioned as a pilot for future partnerships between the Community Foundation and towns and villages in the county, Orton Family Foundation Executive Director David Leckey said.

“I’d like to congratulate the townspeople of McComb on being selected for a Community Heart & Soul project. We look forward to working closely with McComb residents and Community Foundation staff to ensure a process that involves everyone in the community and lays a solid foundation for planning McComb’s future based on what matters most to the people who live there,” said Leckey, who is a native of Hancock County where McComb is located. “This project launches a strategy to have the Community Foundation facilitate Community Heart & Soul projects in additional towns in the county.”

Community Heart & Soul is an approach to community development and planning developed by the Orton Family Foundation that increases participation in local decision-making and invites residents to shape the future of their communities based on what matters most to them.

Hancock County (pop. 74,782) is in a predominantly agricultural area of northwest Ohio, about 50 miles south of Toledo. The county is comprised of 10 villages varying in population from approximately 200 to 1,600 that lie within 17 townships. Findlay, where the Community Foundation is based, is the county seat and the largest community in the county with a population of 41,202. McComb’s population, including another village and two townships that comprise the local school district, is approximately 4,000. The largest industry in the town is Hearthside Food Solutions, a contract maker of baked goods.

In McComb’s proposal townspeople expressed a readiness to focus on revitalizing the downtown. The Heart & Soul Committee evaluating proposals saw McComb at a crucial juncture, Community Foundation President Katherine Kreuchauf said. 

“With infrastructure in place and poised for growth, including a water tower slated for completion in June and a wastewater treatment plant with ample capacity, McComb is at a potential pivot point. We felt this was a crucial moment in McComb’s history and that Heart & Soul could really help the village to shape its future with involvement from everyone in the community,” Kreuchauf said. “The Hancock County Heart & Soul application and site visit process was inspiring. Hancock County is vibrant and full of people who care deeply about their communities. Choosing the first Hancock County Heart & Soul community was a difficult decision. We are very excited about the Heart & Soul partnership with McComb.” 

The McComb Community Heart & Soul project is funded by a two-year, $136,420 grant from the Community Foundation and with staff support from Orton and the Community Foundation. McComb will be eligible for training and technical assistance in addition to the grant and will contribute 1,500 hours of volunteer time as a match.

Free Events in February Focus on Engaging Residents to Shape Change

Two free events this month hosted by Orton are aimed at building better communities through empowering residents to plan their future based on what matters most to them. Please join us!

The first event, on February 12, is part of the new Heart & Soul Talks conference call series and is focused on Community Network Analysis, Orton’s engagement tool that helps bring fresh, new voices and solutions to the table and is a powerful way to reach and understand who lives, works and plays in a town.

The second event, on February 26, is a Heart & Soul Training webinar that offers an overview of and insight into Community Heart & Soul™, a results-oriented and successful approach to community development and planning.

“Involve everyone is a tenet of Community Heart & Soul. Whether you are interested in learning about one specific tool to improve participation or are looking to hear more about Orton’s comprehensive approach to community development and planning, these events will help you along the path to building a better community,” said Alece Montez-Griego, Orton’s programs director.

Here is the schedule:

12 Great Reads to Add to Your List

The Center for Rural Entrepreneurship shared its list of top reads of 2014. Included on the list is the Community Heart & Soul™ Field Guide recommended by Erik Pages, a CRE fellow and president and founder of EntreWorks Consulting, an economic development and policy development firm who said: "This is an excellent guide to strategic planning and community building for small towns."  

Thank you Erik!  Lots of great reads to add to our holiday wish lists! 

Here are the center's Top 12 Recommended Reads of 2014:

Recommended by Erik Pages, EntreWorks Consulting and Center Fellow: The Tyranny of Experts by William Easterly. While the book is mainly about international development issues, it's a useful caution that economic development is about individual choice and empowerment - not the latest scheme from so-called "experts."

Recommended by Don Macke: Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson. This book provides both a framework for exploring the innovation process and wonderful stories of innovation. Check out Johnson's program on Public Broadcasting.

Recommended to Deb Markley by Angela Lust, Amarillo Area Foundation: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer. This book is a true story of innovation under the most challenging circumstances. Inspiring!

Recommended by Erik Pages, EntreWorks Consulting and Center Fellow: Community Heart & Soul Field Guide by the Orton Family Foundation. This is an excellent guide to strategic planning and community building for small towns.

Recommended by all Center staff: The Good Jobs Strategy - How the Smartest Companies Invest in Employees to Lower Costs and Boost Profit by Zeynep Ton. This book provides great case evidence that the race to the bottom need not be the rule as businesses struggle to be competitive.

Recommended by Don Macke: Owning Our Future - The Emerging Ownership Revolution and Journeys to a Generative Economy by Marjorie Kelly. For those of us engaged in entrepreneurship as a means to better economies, this is a must read.

Recommended by Erik Pages, EntreWorks Consulting and Center Fellow: Fueling Up—The Economic Implications of America's Oil and Gas Boom by the Peterson Institute, an economic impact study of shale energy. Not the most scintillating read, but great data that encourages us to be cautious and realistic about the "shale energy revolution."

Recommended by Travis Starkey, a millennial and educator in eastern North Carolina:  "Creative Class Counties and the Recovery." This Daily Yonder article shows the value of the "creative class" to the economic recovery in some parts of rural America. 

Recommended by Don Macke: The End of the Suburbs by Leigh Gallagher. This book provides interesting insight on the changing spatial demographics in the United States. 

Recommended by Deb Markley: Sources of Economic Hope: Women's Entrepreneurship. This Kauffman Foundation research report suggests why accelerating women's entrepreneurship might be the best thing we can do for the U.S. economy. 

Recommended by Don Macke: The Coming Jobs War by Jim Clifton. This book provides insight from the Chairman of Gallup and their unique international view of global competition. 

Recommended by Don Macke: What Then Must We Do? - Straight Talk About the Next American Revolution by Gar Alperovitz. Rooted in the value that economies exist to meet the needs and dreams of residents, this book provides insights worth considering as we engage in economic development.