EcDev Journal

Sustainable Main Street Revitalization: An Evaluation of the Four-Point Approach in Pennsylvania’s Main Street Programs

Posted on Monday September 19, 2016

Dr. Chad M. Kimmel  and Dr. Joel Schoening

The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Main Street Approach to downtown revitalization has been used in thousands of communities across the country.  This research builds on existing research analyzing the Main Street strategy by exploring programs in Pennsylvania, one of the first states to employ the strategy and where the program has been used extensively. Using original survey and site visit data, this research describes Managers’ perceptions regarding the use and effectiveness of the Four-Point Approach and compares these findings with measures of long-term program success. The authors analyze the relationship between the effectiveness of the Four-Point Approach and program sustainability over the long term. Based on findings, they recommend strategies, such as local assessment districts, that correlate with Main Street Program sustainability in Pennsylvania, in addition to other initiatives/programs for planning and design professionals working with the Main Street Four-Point Approach.


Responding to the steep decline in the economic health of American downtowns in the 1970s, The National Trust for Historic Preservation developed the Main Street Project in 1977.  For the first three years the project focused on preserving downtown buildings that were facing demolition and was “ effort born out of necessity, not out of careful planning and analysis” (Dono, 2009: 8). What evolved was a belief that in order to preserve historic buildings, the economic health of downtowns must first be stabilized, and then improved. This led to the creation of the National Historic Trust’s trademarked Four-Point Main Street Approach to downtown revitalization based on organization, promotion, design, and economic restructuring.   Between 1980 and 1983, six states (Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Texas) were chosen to further develop this revitalization strategy. Each state chose five communities.  Today there are more than 2,000 communities across the United States that share information and best practices regarding the Main Street Program’s Four-Point Approach (Dono, 2009).  “The Main Street Approach,” according to community development expert Kent Robertson, “is arguably the most widely used and heralded method of downtown revitalization…in the United States” (2004: 56).  This study extends the literature (Robertson, 1995, 1999, and 2004) by addressing program sustainability in Pennsylvania, a state, according to Lauren Adkins from the National Trust Main Street Center, with the most programs and the largest financial investment in the Main Street Program. [1]

Measuring “sustainability” requires a commitment to discovering the organizational and financial structures that are the foundation of community revitalization.  This research sought a definition of sustainability that captures the depth and breadth of the concept, while remaining methodologically practical and fair to the mission of the Main Street Approach. The researchers therefore drew on a definition of sustainability written by the Pennsylvania Downtown Center (PDC) which defines sustainable programs as those that have stability in leadership, governance, finances and staffing; are flexible, innovative and entrepreneurial, and efficient at what they do; that frequently partner with other groups and public agencies, attract and retain volunteers, have credibility within their community, and are at the table and involved in other community-related initiatives (PDC, 2009).[2]


Since their introduction into Pennsylvania in the early 1980s, MSPs have played an active role in downtown revitalization in over 150 communities.  In Pennsylvania, the Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) appropriates funding for the Main Street Program (DCED, 2008).  The Pennsylvania Downtown Center (PDC), a statewide non-profit, acts as a “coordinating program” and contracts with DCED to provide MSPs technical assistance and educational services and to link communities and the state with the national program.  Once given Main Street designation, a program starts a funding process that, ideally, provides five “rounds” of funding over the course of a three-year contract followed immediately by a two-year contract. Active programs may also apply for additional grants from the DCED, such as the Anchor Building Grant.


This research made use of a mixed methodological approach.  Basic descriptive data for each of Pennsylvania’s programs dating back to 1980 was collected from the PDC.  The 2010 Unites States Census was used to obtain community demographic data, such as median income, home values, racial diversity, etc, for each program  (data was collected for the United States postal code in which the Main Street Program office was located. Postal codes were chosen as the best approximation for the main street area.).[3] Finally, new data was collected through an extensive mail questionnaire and site visits.

Of the 165 total MSPs in Pennsylvania’s history, 108 traditional, eight regional, and 17 urban programs were successfully identified.  The overall response rate was 52 percent (69 returned/133 mailed).  Data was collected from all three categories (traditional, urban, and regional) but the primary analyses focused on traditional programs only (N=60).


This study set out to explore the relationships between the dependent variable, program sustainability, and a host of independent variables, such as community characteristics/assets (social, physical and economic), use of the Main Street Four-Point Approach, and leadership and organization within community.  Program sustainability was defined as “stability in leadership, governance, finances, and staffing” (PDC, 2009a).  Toward this end, a single MSP sustainability variable was created by combining the indicators within the survey that were intended to measure leadership (number of months served by current manager), governance (effectiveness of board of directors), finances (percentage of budget from state in last budget year) and staffing (use of volunteers). Using this combined variable, each program responding to the survey received a separate sustainability index score.  Sustainability scores for programs in this study ranged from 18.75 percent to 93.33 percent (out of 100).  The mean was 62.85 percent.


Using a regression analysis, program MSP sustainability scores were more likely to be high when/if:

  • Programs had high Four-Point effectiveness scores (Manager preceptions)
  • Programs had Business Improvement Districts (BIDs)
  • Programs were not challenged by negative public perceptions of their downtowns
  • Programs partnered with Historic Preservation NGOs
  • Programs considered their preservation and architectural heritage, their business owners, and the location of government offices in the downtown as strong assets 
  • Median rents within the community were elevated


In this study sustainable programs were defined as those having stability in leadership, governance, finances and staffing; they are flexible, innovative and entrepreneurial, and efficient at what they do; they frequently partner with other groups and public agencies, attract and retain volunteers, have credibility within their community, and are at the table and involved in other community-related initiatives (PDC, 2009).  Two variables emerged as significant predictors of MSP sustainability: the existence of a Business Improvement District (BID), and managers’ perceived effectiveness of the Main Street Four-Point Approach.  Of the 60 traditional programs that participated in this study, only six had BIDs.  BIDs provide programs with a long-term, stable funding source--a ground upon which projections can be made and future goals set.  Often MSPs are the precursors to BIDs or other special assessment funding strategies implemented by downtowns or districts.  Forty-three percent of Managers responding to the BID question had a BID, were in the process of developing one, or were early into the information-gathering phase. 

The second and notably the most significant correlation with program sustainability was a program’s combined effectiveness using the Main Street Four-Point Approach.  Clearly Main Street Programs have positive effects upon the communities they exist within.  Evidence from this study suggests that it is the capacity of the community, the skill sets of the Manager, and the support of influential town leaders that determine what points are used, how often, and in what manner.  Another variable important to the success of any program is the length of service of the Main Street manager—MSPs must do everything they can to attract and keep good managers.  The median number of years for managers in this study was 2.8, which is slightly higher than the national average of 1.5 years (Briggs, 2009).  Length of service becomes important as one considers the learning curve which may take the entire first year.  And with most managers leaving just six months later, it becomes very difficult for programs to create momentum, establish legitimacy, and to begin to build the deep organizational roots and partnerships within their respective communities that are needed to accomplish program goals. 

Based on the evidence from this study, program sustainability is either directly or indirectly related to the following six MSP characteristics.  Main Street Managers and members of Main Street program committees are strongly encouraged to assess how they can incorporate these characteristics into their MSPs.

  1. The extent to which a Manager harnesses and mobilizes the power-brokers (business/property owners, respected and influential leaders, etc.)in their community in support of a plan that can be easily explained on one piece of paper .
  2. A Manager’s ability to market such a plan to investors, to residents and to the surrounding communities.
  3. A strategic blending of the Four-Point Approach tailored to current and projected needs.
  4. A well-paid, well-trained, experienced Manager who is not intimidated by the Board/power-brokers, who understands and is willing to confront local politics/personalities, who is guided by a larger vision of the community, and who incorporates the need to educate community on the purpose and potential of the Four-Point Approach.
  5. A BID or BID-like system that draws on widespread participation from the business community so as to provide a sustainable and predictable funding source.
  6. Partnerships with both County and nongovernmental organizations, particularly historic preservation NGOs, in order to mobilize available resources for specific projects.


In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in downtown living. Main Streets today, unlike years before, must be managed.  Strategic plans need to be in place, goals and objectives developed and implemented.  The sustainability of the overall community, disproportionately, however, rests on the shoulders of the Main Street Manager.  Given the pressures of their job, programs fail and communities lose—manager turnover is just 18 months.  Main Street Programs, particularly their managers, need help; they need the expertise of planners and designers; they need the knowledge and experience of seasoned economic development specialists.  Managers, more than anything, are marketers, and they could benefit from a few more hands in this department too.  Indeed, planners and designers have shared interests with Main Street Programs.  From transportation and pedestrian work to design and historical preservation, everyone would benefit from collaboration.   

In conclusion, downtown revitalization programs, like the Main Street Four-Point Approach, need stability in governance, leadership, finances and staffing in order to maintain momentum and to achieve and build upon success.  A struggling program often will do more harm than good—public perception is set and becomes hard to change.  The achievements of sustainable programs, however, work to provide more stable social and economic foundations that have long-term benefits to community.  Planners and design professionals can directly contribute to a program’s sustainability, and therefore support the development of community health for generations to come.



Briggs, P.  2009.  Program Associate/Assistant to the Director, National Trust for Historic Preservation ~ Main Street Center.  Telephone interview with author, July 30.

DCED, 2008.  “New communities: Program guidelines.” April pp. 1-7.  Retrieved August 10, 2009 (

Dono, A.  2009.  Revitalizing Main Street: A practitioner’s guide to comprehensive commercial district revitalization.  Washington, D.C.: National Trust Main Street Center.

PDC.  2009a.  “Elm Street Program.”  Retrieved August 10, 2009 (

Robertson, K.  1995.  “Downtown redevelopment strategies in the United States.”  Journal of the American Planning Association (Autumn), 61 (4): 429-438.

Robertson, K.  1999.  “Can small-city downtowns remain viable?”  Journal of the American Planning Association (Summer), 65 (3): 270-283.

Robertson, K.  2004.  “The Main Street Approach to downtown development: An examination of the four-point program.”  Journal of Architectural and Planning Research (Spring), 21(1): 55-72.



This project was made possible, in part, by a grant from the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, a legislative agency of the Pennsylvania General Assembly. 



Dr. Chad M. Kimmel ( is an Associate Professor of Sociology in the Department of Sociology/Anthropology at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania where he teaches courses in Community Sociology, Criminology, Deviance, and Juvenile Delinquency.  He received his Ph.D. in Sociology from Western Michigan University. 

Dr. Joel Schoening ( is a Program Analyst for Metro, the regionally elected land use and planning authority in Portland, Oregon, where he conducts research and policy analysis in the areas of public-private partnerships, community economic development, brownfield remediation, and infrastructure finance.

[1] Lauren Adkins, Assistant Director for Field Services, e-mail message to author, June 8, 2010.

[2] The authors acknowledge a departure in our definition from current common usage. This study does not measure the environmental impact of the Main Street program.

[3] Though postal codes are an imperfect approximation of the social and economic base for Main Streets, a review of census blocks was considered to be equally problematic.