A Unified Voice in Support of Downtown
By Michelle McCabe, CMSC Executive Director
I fell in love with Fairfield because of its downtown. The charm of attractive storefronts and restaurants, the feel of lots going on, watching people bustling about on a sunny day together combined to communicate a warm, welcoming community that I wanted to join. In my new role as Executive Director of Connecticut Main Street Center, I have the privilege of falling in love with countless main streets beyond the town in which I live. It’s no wonder that downtowns and main streets are consistently referenced as a draw to Connecticut, bringing new businesses, workers, and visitors to live, work and play in our state.
However, we know that creating an inviting main street is no easy feat. Main streets rely on a complex network of relationships. Housing, food and drink, transportation, workforce, walkability, arts and culture, entertainment, parking, zoning, property owners and small businesses – many competing interests that require careful balancing and negotiation in order to craft a working ecosystem. Interdependency may be the underlying reality of a main street but that doesn’t mean that all the stakeholders on main street see the bigger picture when conducting their daily business. A skilled main street manager builds coalitions among these actors, uniting them around common goals to support the entire corridor. Strength in numbers all rowing in the same direction can realize sustainable and continuous growth.
The relationship and coalition building that is so critical to a vibrant main street informs advocacy at the state-level as well. Decision making each session has a ripple effect at the municipal level with the capacity to raise all ships or possibly sink them. Main streets have an opportunity to influence those decisions, to raise concerns, enact new policies, and direct funding that will support success in our rural, suburban and urban downtowns. In order to move the needle, main streets benefit from joining forces around a unified platform.
Connecticut Main Street historically has facilitated building a collective voice for our members and making connections with other advocacy coalitions to support our priorities. In the last session, CMSC advocated in support of legislation that expanded outdoor dining options and the application of abandoned and blighted property receivership, and informed proposed legislation around transit oriented development. Additionally, CMSC partnered with the newly formed Main Street Working Group, comprised of Reps. Jennifer Leeper, Jane Garibay, and Quentin Williams. The Working Group was created to study existing policies and identify opportunities to support local Downtown Main Streets across the state. CMSC provided them with information on issues facing downtowns and connected the Working Group with downtown professionals and industry experts who can speak to issues managing a downtown.
In preparation for the upcoming session, we spent the summer and fall making sure that we heard from our members about what they need. As a response to the focus on affordable housing around transit nodes, we conducted a TOD listening tour, visiting several of the main streets impacted by the proposed legislation. In September, we distributed our first CMSC Advocacy Survey to gather input on a variety of topics from mixed income residential to support for small business to expanding transit. The results are informing our policy priorities, which we will be unveiling in December along with the first convening with the legislature’s Main Street Working Group. As a preview to our upcoming report, here are the issues that rose to the top from the results of our conversations and survey responses:
- Increase direct support for main street small businesses and food retailers that includes access to capital and addressing workforce shortages
- Support downtown development through a combination of tax incentives and access to capital
- Enact implementation legislation that can allow for more municipal input on main street properties
- Expand bus lines to better connect workers to jobs, increase funding for multimodal transit, and increase frequency of rail and bus
- Shorten wait times for approval processes in administrative departments
- Ensure that all downtowns – whether they are urban, suburban or rural – have equal access to funding and incentives
Weighing in on legislation being crafted that impacts main streets is important; creating our own Main Street bills that are designed to specifically support vibrancy is essential. CMSC is looking forward to continued input from our members as we move into session in honing our priorities, meeting with legislators, and submitting public testimony.
As everyone’s neighborhood, Connecticut’s main streets are one of our state’s most precious assets. CMSC will work to ensure state-level investments are made in terms of supportive policies, funding, marketing, and efficiencies that reflect their importance to Connecticut’s future.
About the Author
Michelle McCabe is Connecticut Main Street Center’s Executive Director. Michelle brings 12 years of non-profit experience to CMSC. Before joining, Michelle served as interim Executive Director for HomeBridge Ventures, a non-profit focused on holistic workforce development and re-entry programming for formerly incarcerated individuals, and over seven years as Director of the FEED Center with The Council of Churches of Greater Bridgeport. In the course of this work, she built multiple programs from the ground up, leading strategic planning, raising funds from a diversity of revenue sources, and guiding boards and staff through organizational change. Her experience also extends to successful public/private collaborations, community engagement, and policy advocacy. Michelle currently serves on the Board of the Connecticut Arts Alliance and as a member of Fairfield’s Representative Town Meeting. She holds a bachelor’s degree in art history from Vassar College and a master’s degree in art history and criticism from the University of Texas at Austin.