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Getting Started: Initial Homework

July 8, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-07-08 at 4.24.21 PMAfter our last call, Laura kindly emailed me various Main Streets handbooks for getting started, and then today we had another call.  A lot of the info in the handbooks I learned at the National Main Streets Conference, but there is always more to learn, and do.

There’s A LOT of material, so here are the homework items that apply to us right now:

>> Take stock of the town’s businesses.  There’s no precise way to do this, but we can get a pretty good idea if we:

  • Walk the downtown streets and list each business, categorized by type, target demographic, and relative popularity/success (if known).
  • Go to the city government offices (often the Financial or Business office) for a list of active business licenses.
  • Research any other demographic studies recently conducted by developers.

>> Find out the business district’s zoning.  For Fairfax, we found them in the Town of Fairfax website > Government > Town Code > Municipal Code of Ordinances > Zoning > CC Central Commercial Zone.  We have a few good ordinances in place already, including regulated first-floor offices in retail zones, liquor stores, theaters, etc. so that there may be a healthy mix of business types.

Often you can just google your town’s website, and dig for the zoning codes.  Note which types of businesses are Principally Permitted (these types can set up shop easily, anywhere) versus Conditional Uses (need a permit so that they can’t pop up anywhere).  A good ordinance for downtown is when first floor spaces are reserved for retail (which attract shoppers) or businesses that the majority of the community want to use, as opposed to random businesses or countless real estate offices.  (You’ve probably seen some popular resort towns with way too many real estate storefronts where you wished there were shops.)

>> Gather a list of business property owners.  We can go ourselves to the county public records, but it can be a lot faster to ask a realtor friend to put in a request for your downtown’s city blocks.  Then, we can get all the reports in one swoop instead of digging for each type of document for each type of property.

>> Identify well-liked, like-minded elected officials.  The best way to find these folks is by asking around, but we can also do a little detective work looking at past City Council meeting minutes to see how they have voted for similar issues (e.g., preservation, environment, open space, local businesses, etc.).  Another trick we learned was by viewing Council meeting video archives to see which government officers have a cool vibe.  Qualitative, but important!

Fairfax has meeting minutes and video posted: Town of Fairfax website > Government > Town Council > Meeting Archive.  Voila!

Screen Shot 2015-07-08 at 4.29.03 PM

>> Onboard a core group of early supporters.  For Fairfax, our priority is going to be: downtown business owners (including the ad hoc community center Good Earth), downtown business property owners (starting with owners of the vacant stores), Sustainable Fairfax, a few elected officials, any active preservation organizations, and residents.

Each town may prioritize different stakeholders, but generally, they are often a a mix of residents, small business owners, major corporations/industries in town, business property owners, elected government officials, preservation organizations, financial institutions, civic groups, schools, media, community organizations, planning commissions, religious institutions, et al.

>> Create a formal Main Streets organization from the get-go, even if it seems overly bureaucratic.  It makes a big difference in community perception, discipline for the steering committee (aka “early champions”), program momentum, funding, and so on.  In some cases, IF missions are totally aligned, it can be housed within an existing organization.  (We are secretly thinking Sustainable Fairfax may be a good fit.)

Allow 12 months to get the Main Streets organization set up.  You can get started on various programs or events in the meantime, but allow this long to engage enough of the community.

>> Customize the timeline and order of implementation.  A general process for starting a Main Streets program is documented, but really every town is unique.  Depending on how go-getter the initial champions are and how receptive the community is, it can be put on a fast track…or it can take years and years.

We’re thinking it would be best to have the Fairfax program be community-driven from the start, and focus on the vacancies in town, since that’s what everyone seems to be talking about.  I’d like to see how broad a group of initial supporters we can get.

>> Do some advanced digging.  This is from the handbooks, and definitely more “advanced” work, but we could also check out:

  • Population census: comparing today vs 10 years ago
  • Retail Trade census: comparing today vs 5 years go
  • Real estate value trends
  • Sales tax reports
  • Other analysis done by others (e.g., Chevron from when they were considering locating here)

Lots to do!

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