The Tennessee Main Street Program grew out of a late-1970s national effort to revitalize historic business districts in American small towns and cities. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a private nonprofit membership organization, pioneered the downtown revitalization approach upon which nearly all states, including Tennessee, are modeled. The national program has evolved over the years. So too has the Tennessee Main Street Program shifted to respond to needs and pressures within the state. Although the future of the program has not always been certain, the Tennessee Main Street Program has continued to reinvent (and revive) itself as it seeks to preserve local and regional identity within a sustainable economic framework.
The history of the Tennessee program is intimately linked to the growth of the national program. Main Street began in 1977 with three demonstration projects in the Midwest; after three years of success, the National Trust launched a nationwide demonstration program that included towns in Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Texas. At the end of its three-year demonstration program, the National Main Street Program offered its services to all states, and Tennessee and four other states became part of the program.
Tennessee’s Main Street Program, placed by Governor Lamar Alexander in the Department of Conservation, began its revitalization efforts in September 1983. The Tennessee program was modeled on the national demonstration project, which had been open only to cities with populations between 5,000 and 50,000. The demonstration cities in Tennessee were Brownsville, Pulaski, Gallatin, Columbia, and Greeneville. Of those initial participants, Brownsville is the only one that is currently no longer participating.
In those early years, the program spread across the state; and because it was a partner with the Tennessee Historical Commission, there was a strong focus on historic preservation as a foundation for economic development. In the 1980s the program had a two-person staff, a director and a design consultant, who traveled across the state with other partnering organizations offering professional and technical service. While they implemented many programs in that decade, the most successful was the Community Outreach Resources Workshop program.
A major setback to Tennessee Main Street came in 1990, when Governor Ned Ray McWherter moved the program to the Department of Economic and Community Development (ECD). A year later, staff departures left the program struggling in its new agency environment. These struggles reached their peak when the program was cut entirely from the state budget in 1997. The director of the Three Star Program (also under ECD) kept the Main Street initiative running under its umbrella, but the individual community programs largely operated without state technical assistance. Several programs remained strong by adhering to the national program’s four-point approach (organization, promotion, design, and economic restructuring) while other communities lost sight of a historic-preservation focus in their design efforts and supported facadism, an architectural design approach that led to idealized Victorian storefronts rather than accurate restorations of the historic buildings.
After the Tennessee Main Street program struggled for several years without a state director, Governor Phil Bredesen revived it within the Department of Economic and Community Development. In 2006 Tennessee hired a new state director, Kimberly Nyberg, Tennessee’s design consultant from the late 1980s and early 1990s. Nyberg reinstated the community workshops and instituted a certification program to bring back historic preservation to the heart of the four-point approach.
This restructuring and refocusing proved problematic for the few programs that had strayed too far from the original goal of the program, but it also helped to strengthen the program and bring back in communities that had previously opted out. Even with this standardization, there is still a wide variety of focus and implementation in the current state-certified programs. Some programs are private nonprofits, others are a part of city governments or chambers of commerce, and still others have taken on an education-focused mission. Many programs use festivals as both a fundraiser and tourism/economic development mechanism, adding to cultural life within the towns. Collierville works closely with local school systems to teach young members of the community the importance of local identity and supporting local businesses. The Union City program is in charge of the Obion County Leadership classes. Bristol faces the unique challenge of being a city on a state line: there is a city and county government for both the Tennessee and Virginia sides, but while the Tennessee side has an accredited Main Street program, the affiliated Virginia program does not.
While Bristol’s situation is perhaps the most complicated, all of the programs meet unique challenges. What is true for all of the successful programs is that they stay closely focused on the four-point approach. Many Main Streets begin their work by placing their business district on the National Register of Historic Places, thus making those businesses eligible for federal tax incentives on any renovation projects. Time and again, Main Street in Tennessee brings the recognition that downtown development and reinvestment in downtown cores is an excellent economic development tool and tourism initiative.
David Price, Banking on Tennessee’s History: The Economic Value of Historic Preservation to the People of Tennessee(Nashville, 2004); Ann Toplovich, “Main Street Moves Ahead,” Tennessee Conservationist 50, no. 3 (1984): 2–4.