Lessons for Main Street More Urgent Than Ever Due to Covid-19
Rural Main Streets program brings timely expertise and technical assistance to 11 rural and suburban districts
May 29, 2020: The commercial corridor of Greenback Lane though Orangevale has needed a lot of help for a long time. As Brad Squires, the chair of the Orangevale Chamber of Commerce said, “most rental space is vacant, there’s a lot of tattoo, massage parlor, and auto repair and the businesses there are not very community oriented, in terms of restaurants and cafes or places where people gather.”
In that sense, Greenback Lane was an ideal candidate for SACOG’s Rural Main Streets program, which brings experts in retail, housing, and streetscaping to help communities work out how to revive their commercial corridors, be that a long suburban auto-oriented retail boulevard like Greenback, a small-town downtown like Marysville, or a shrinking retail destination like the Galt Marketplace.
Eleven such communities have been granted up to $20,000 worth of consultant work in 2020 as well as technical advice from SACOG staff but before the first public step in Orangevale’s work could even begin, Covid-19 struck. What was to have been an in-person workshop to take place on Greenback Lane with retail guru Michele Reeves became a pair of Zoom meetings and some one-on-one discussions. And the first meeting — which was supposed to focus on uniting property owners to come up with a vision for the corridor — became dominated by discussing strategies to survive the shelter in place impact on retail because that was the most important topic on business owners and landlords’ minds.
Squires said he was frustrated that the long-term vision discussion didn’t happen the way he had hoped but as Greg Chew, a SACOG senior planner who manages the Rural Main Streets project said, the Covid-19 crisis has been an “accelerant of the retail apocalypse” that is facing many of the districts in the program. Michele Reeves told her Orangevale audience that for commercial ground floor space, this will be “the worst market in decades.” She said traditional commercial corridors were already facing huge challenges and now they face an environment of 10 years’ worth of retail changes being forced upon retailers all at once.
The current retail environment is so unprecedented that Reeves began with lessons drawn from how retailers responded to 1918’s Spanish Flu pandemic. And working together in the face of such a challenge is the same strategy that retail districts need to follow even without the stress of Covid-19. Property owners and tenants need to unite around a vision for the district, create a plan that demonstrates that unity and vision to funders, and then work to get the components of their plan funded, from better streetscaping to marketing to safety initiatives. For districts in the SACOG four-county funding area, that can mean leveraging participation in SACOG’s Civic Lab [link] to funding through Rural Main Streets to help create or advance a vision, leading to a cohesive plan, leading to other funding through the SACOG funding round or through other funders.
Each of the 11 communities in the program — Antelope, Colfax, Galt, Isleton, Live Oak, Loomis, Marysville, Meadow Vista, Orangevale, Placerville, and Yuba City — has different characteristics and challenges but the importance of creating a strategic plan that both the community and funders can get behind is key in all cases. Not all will use the services of all three consultants but mix and match their challenges and opportunities with the resources available.
In Galt, for example, the challenge is how to revive the Galt Marketplace and make better use of that resource, which is owned by the City of Galt and has historically provided a lot of the city’s revenue and enabled the city’s excellent parks and recreation facilities. The Marketplace was already being buffeted by online sales and other retail trends that Covid-19 has only accelerated.
Chew said that the communities in the program were facing shared underlying challenges and he hoped that meant they would be able to learn from the work each was doing.