HALEYVILLE - Creating jobs while preserving the character and integrity of the downtown district is the heart of the Main Street Alabama program, which has added Haleyville as one of its network cities to begin its journey into revitalization.
Cities or communities wishing to start a revitalization effort are finding the Main Street Alabama network to be just the right fit. A meeting was held Monday, Nov. 29, at Haleyville City Hall and attended by city officials and the public but designed primarily for merchants. The purpose of the meeting was to educate merchants on the endless possibilities Main Street Alabama offers before the city can make official application to become a Designated Main Street Alabama city or community.
Trisha Black, of Main Street Alabama, who was formerly director of the Main Street program in Athens for eight years, addressed the audience, describing Haleyville as “lovely.” In her six years with Main Street Alabama, Black has worked with numerous communities throughout the state to help revitalize those areas.
Main Street Alabama is not just about building better downtowns; it is about making a hometown community the best it can be. Affiliated with National Main Street Center, the program uses a proven four-point approach to help communities organize themselves for success by improving the design of their neighborhoods, promoting their districts and enhancing their economic base. These four points are design, organization, promotion and economic vitality, each of which was explained more thoroughly by Black.
Communities such as Haleyville that are preparing to go through the competitive selection process for a Designated Main Street Alabama program need to understand the MSA network will assist them in building the necessary resources while explaining the funding requirements.
“For me, it is just a pleasure to see communities find success in this program,” Black said.
In 2013, the state did not have a Main Street program. At one time, such a program was handled under the Alabama Historical Commission, she said. The steering committee came together with efforts of revitalizing, no pun intended, the program.
“They reached out to those communities who were functioning as a Main Street program or had been under Alabama Main Street in the 1990s and early 2000s,” Black said.
That resulted in 10 Alabama communities that were grandfathered into the program, which has now grown to 29 designated communities and around 35 network communities. Haleyville is at the network community stage.
Main Street Alabama is a non-profit organization which relies on partnerships to fund its program, Black explained.
“Why revitalize?” Black asked. “Your city’s core, this is where all the activity is happening. Your downtown was built first, and everything else came after that.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown people they can choose where they would like to live, as many have worked from home, she further explained.
“I am excited about the idea that downtowns in our communities can offer that quality, that people can move there and, by internet, work wherever,” Black continued.
The first year in the process of a community moving from the network level to become a Designated Main Street Alabama program is based around organization, she explained.
“You’ve got to start building up that volunteer base,” she stressed, “because Main Street is a volunteer driven organization.”
These communities also need a well-trained board of directors, as well as a complete set of by-laws and a budget for the projects they strive to do, Black stated.
As far as funding for the program, 30 percent comes from the city and county, 30 percent from those in the district, 30 percent from corporations outside the district and 10 percent from fundraisers, according to Black.
The promotion segment is what sells a community’s downtown as a designation. This will involve special events, such as--in the case of Haleyville--the 9-1-1 Festival held the first weekend in June each year, as well as retail promotions.
Another example is the Athens Grease festival, a play on the word “Greece” and a celebration of all things fried in Athens, Black explained. After mixed emotions from the community on having the event, it was created to boost the Greek culture, she noted.
Other events hosted by downtown merchants could offer promotions for the crowds attracted to a downtown for monthly or quarterly live entertainment events.
Concerns in the city of Athens, where Black was director of the Main Street program, included the lack of parking, so a meeting was set to educate not only merchants but the public on the amount of parking actually available, she said.
A result of this meeting was the placement of postcards in businesses noting that 952 free parking spaces were available, including 382 spaces in public lots and 570 on the street around the city square.
In discussing the design committee, Black explained that its members would look at ways to better beautify their district, whether by removing litter or improving the facades.
“This is what you are doing with your pocket park right now,” Black said.
She was referring to the space along Haleyville’s main street where murals of local historical landmarks have been placed on an adjoining building and a stage is being developed to have outdoor concerts or other entertainment.
In the community of Marion, a vacant building was decorated with murals or images of Civil Rights heroes to re-direct the eyes away from seeing the vacant portions of the building, Black explained.
Switching to the topic of economic vitality, Black explained that a community needs to do research to better understand public needs, what attracts people to an area and how these businesses can recruit to help fill in gaps between what businesses offer and what the public trends are.
“I don’t know about you, but when a new business comes in, there are a lot of rumors about what it is going to be, ” Black stated. “That paper goes up in the windows. There’s a lot of speculation.
“So, build off that excitement,” she continued, adding that data needs to be gathered to see what the community wants as far as businesses and how the community could support those businesses.
Black stressed that Haleyville is currently listed as a network community, with the next level to achieve being Designated Main Street.
“The network is a way to date before you put a ring on it,” she pointed out. The network status means a community should participate in training, which is done quarterly and at a state conference.
Two of the training exercises are webinars that are free of charge, Black stressed. These create a network with others involved in downtown revitalization. Those interested in becoming a Designated Main Street program are required to attend application workshops in January, she added.
The Designated Main Street program is a selective, in-depth application process, Black stressed. The workshop will review the application process as well as expectations of the Designated program.
After the application is submitted, an oral presentation must be done before the selection committee, which makes the recommendation that goes to the board for final approval, said Black.
Fees in order for a community to participate in the Designated level are $7,500 the first year, $5,000 the second year, $3,000 the third year and $1,500 for every year after that.
All of the costs of the program are included in these fees, according to Black.
Neina Middleton asked whether or not the fees cover an additional market analysis if a community underwent leadership changes and if a community needed help.
Black responded it would cover those costs.
“What town do you have that is similar to our size that you would say is your biggest success?” council member Dr. Ray Boshell asked.
Headland, with a population of around 5,000, became a Designated Main Street Community in 2019, Black said. “They had 17 businesses open in the district since 2019, and for a community that size, that’s pretty significant.”
State Representative Tracy Estes asked if Designated Main Street communities would be open to a local delegation visiting them.
“We actually have a big push on advocacy right now,” Black responded, “and really encourage our communities to have conversations and let their legislators know what is happening in their districts.”
“I was talking about a delegation group from this community,” Estes noted.
“We have that happen a lot,” Black responded.
About 227 new businesses opened in Designated Main Street areas from March 2020 to September 2021, with only 44 closing during the COVID-19 pandemic, Black explained.
“A lot of our Main Street directors were on the ground hustling for those businesses, making signs for curbside parking,” she said.
“The director in Athens worked with the city and they expanded dining down the sidewalks, even in front of retail businesses, for those restaurants to still serve people and still meet regulations,” Black further explained.
“It’s a good time for downtowns right now,” she pointed out.
Middleton then asked how the volunteer-based boards were developed.
Black answered that people going into the program are urged to think about their communities and who would be best to get involved.
In Athens, volunteer meetings were held among the core group to discuss and plan projects, she said.
Mayor Sunseri stresses program’s importance
Mayor Ken Sunseri addressed the audience, stating that Haleyville has been designated as an Opportunity Zone.
Prior to the pandemic, the city had a meeting set up for Opportunity Zone personnel to visit the city concerning a hotel the city is trying to get, Sunseri pointed out.
Plans for a meeting about the Opportunity Zone are currently in the works again, he stated.
Sunseri, council member Boo Brooks and Chamber President Mike Evans attended a retail academy to seek ways of redeveloping the city’s commercial district, the mayor said.
“We now have a listing of about 12 different buildings on there (so) that if you asked me about retail space, I can tell you what’s available and where it’s available,” Mayor Sunseri pointed out.
The city also has a five-year strategic plan, with one of the city’s advantages being the installation of Freedom Fiber high speed internet service, Sunseri added.
“I want to emphasize one thing. The city can’t do it all,” Sunseri stressed. “I don’t care what we do or how hard we work, and the council has been fantastic working with me trying to do these different things.
“But we need the community to become involved,” Sunseri continued to stress. “We need volunteers.
“We are limited by our own attitudes,” he added. “If we decide we want to make this work, we can make it work.
“I need everyone to look at this, look at the Main Street program, look at the website and figure out, where can I fit into this and what do I need to do? How can I promote this project?” Sunseri stressed.
“I need the cooperation of the people here...Our park will be a major factor here, the murals we have, the banners we have. We are not that far behind from doing a lot of these things, but it is going to take everyone working together,” Sunseri continued.
Sunseri explained that restrictions are in place concerning opening new businesses. “You can no longer just go into a building and open up a business,” he said.
Guidelines concerning architect requirements as well as fire and safety codes must be followed, according to Sunseri.
Potential businesses need to understand these and all related guidelines before they go further into their quest, city officials indicated.
“This is not a city thing,” Sunseri stressed. “This is the state of Alabama.”
If there is a question, the public is welcome to contact the city; and the city, in turn, will work with them anyway they can, Sunseri added.
After the meeting, Dr. Boshell stressed that the downtown is the heart of any community.
“Anything you can do to revitalize it and to increase business is going to increase the town itself,” Dr. Boshell stated.
Representative Estes recalled he was the coordinator of the Main Street program in the city of Winfield around 25 years ago.
Town lighting, brick pavers, restoration of Pastime Theatre and the pocket park are all the results of the Main Street program, Estes said.
“I will do anything I can to partner with the city of Haleyville to help bring this about,” Estes said.
See complete story in the Northwest Alabamian.