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Three Main Street America Staff members standing in front of a mural in Marion, Iowa.

Marion, Iowa © Tasha Sams

About

We work in collaboration with thousands of local partners and grassroots leaders across the nation who share our commitment to advancing shared prosperity, creating resilient economies, and improving quality of life.

Overview Who We Are How We Work Partner Collaborations Our Supporters Our Team Job Opportunities Contact Us
Two community members in Emporia Kansas pose with a sign saying "I'm a Main Streeter"

Emporia, Kansas © Emporia Main Street

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Made up of small towns, mid-sized communities, and urban commercial districts, the thousands of organizations, individuals, volunteers, and local leaders that make up Main Street America™ represent the broad diversity that makes this country so unique.

Overview Coordinating Programs Main Street Communities Collective Impact Awards & Recognition Community Evaluation Framework Join the Movement
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Looking for strategies and tools to support you in your work? Delve into the Main Street Resource Center and explore a wide range of resources including our extensive Knowledge Hub, professional development opportunities, field service offerings, advocacy support, and more!

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December 16, 2020 | Economic Gardening Takes Root: Redesigning the "Bricks & Clicks" Business Retention Program During the Pandemic | By: Erin Smith, Director of Special Projects, Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance | 

Outdoor dining in downtown Harrisonburg. Note: This photo was taken prior to the pandemic. Credit: Sarah Featherstone Photography

In May of 2020, Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance in Harrisonburg, Virginia, was selected as one of eight accredited Main Street America programs to receive a $10,000 grant through the Grills Fund for Main Street Revitalization. This funding came at a pivotal time for businesses downtown; university students (who make up 42 percent of our population) had transitioned to online-only learning and didn’t return to town after their spring break. Graduation ceremonies, business promotions, and community festivals were dropping off the calendar. Following the City’s first spike in COVID-19 cases, residents were keeping their distance as state-mandated restrictions shuttered businesses.

In the wake of these challenges, the Grills Fund provided us the opportunity to expand our existing business retention program, Bricks & Clicks, and recast it with a pandemic-response focus. Launched in 2018, Bricks & Clicks was inspired by “economic gardening,” a business retention strategy that focuses on growing existing businesses rather than attracting new ones. Economic gardening’s business growth strategies usually involve connecting entrepreneurs to advanced tools that typically aren’t available to under-resourced companies, like market research and social media marketing. Previous rounds of Bricks & Clicks offered workshops with inspiring speakers, one-on-one technical assistance from local experts, and mini-grants to boost business owners’ marketing savvy, ramp up online sales, and create more buzz around brick and mortar stores.

For the 2020 round of Bricks & Clicks, we worked with multiple community partners (the Shenandoah Valley Small Business Development Center, City of Harrisonburg Economic Development, the Shenandoah Valley Technology Council, James Madison University’s Professional and Continuing Education Department, and a team of local marketing consultants, web design firms, and architects – many also located downtown) to offer a three-part program that included:

Self-guided online trainings, initial consultations with the Shenandoah Valley Small Business Development Center and access to customer feedback compiled from a survey of nearly 1,700 regional respondents. These resources were available to all businesses and helped them plan pandemic response strategies. Free, customized, one-on-one technical assistance with digital marketing, e-commerce, customer experience testing, and interior and architectural design experts for businesses accepted into the program after completing a short application process. After completing their consultations, businesses applied for grants to fund their projects.

Businesses identified problem areas that were e-commerce, digital marketing and/or branding-related (“clicks”) and/or physical or sanitary modifications specific to COVID-19 response (“bricks”). Qualified applicants were eligible to receive funding up to $5,000, without a match.

Bricks & Clicks became a $45,000 program funded by $10,000 from the Grills Fund, $25,000 from HDR’s Friendly City Fortune mega-raffle proceeds, and an additional $10,000 grant from the Truist Foundation. Twenty businesses applied to the program, all were accepted, and all businesses received a grant. Grants ranged between $1,000-$4,000, with most participants receiving checks in the $2,000-3,000 range.
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Pedestrians line the streets of downtown Harrisonburg. Note: This photo was taken prior to the pandemic. Credit: Sarah Featherstone Photography

Example Projects and Testimonials

While project completion data will not be collected until January and into 2021, all Bricks & Clicks projects will be completed by December 31st. Explore More Discovery Museum, a non-profit children’s museum that remains a lynchpin attraction in our district, used their grant to partially fund the construction of a new, custom-built handwashing station at their museum entrance, with the ultimate goal of building out a “How Well Do You Wash?” educational exhibit.

The Friendly City Food-Coop, a member-owned grocery store, used their grant funding to launch Co-go, an e-commerce site that enables customers to shop for their groceries online and arrange for either in-store or curbside pick-up. While the majority of The Friendly City Food Co-ops sales remain from in-person shopping, Bricks & Clicks funding allowed them to move forward with Co-go in tandem with their pre-planned store expansion.

“Our decision to move forward with the expansion in the midst of a pandemic was a bit scary, but we believe it was the right choice for us. The financial support from this grant has helped to ease some of the financial worry that comes with uncertain times,” said Lindsay, Marketing and Brand Manager for the Friendly City Food Co-op.

withSimplicity, a natural and organic skincare and makeup company, leveraged their grant funding to work with two students at James Madison University’s X-Labs to create custom Instagram augmented reality filters that allow customers to “try-on” makeup products using their phone cameras. Not only does this allow customers to sample makeup products in different shades from the comfort of their homes, but it eliminates the need for tester products, which withSimplicity couldn’t use in-store due to state regulations.

Timeline & Readjustments

The 2020 program was designed so that project grants could be distributed by early July. In practice, however, it became apparent that many businesses were unable to make strategic projects decisions as they adjusted to the pandemic and evolving governor’s orders. In response to this, we loosened our timeline and began accepting applications for grant funding on a rolling basis until December 1. While this allowed for more flexibility for businesses to make unhurried and adaptive decisions (a definite plus), it also meant that funding was invested in the district without the immediacy that we had aimed for. In retrospect, this worked out for the best since the pandemic is drawing on for much longer than any of us had anticipated.

We also learned that while some businesses had a grasp on the challenges the pandemic created for their customer base and business model, as well as the basic skill set and baseline knowledge to identify specific areas that needed improvement, others were starting from square one. This became especially clear for the businesses primarily focused on “clicks” improvements. In the future iterations of this program, we hope to identify and support businesses with varying skill levels in marketing during the initial intake period, in addition to more strategically matching businesses with experts so that both digital marketing novices and veterans can get the most out of the program.

Outcomes

Of the 20 program participants, 16 used their grant money to make e-commerce and digital marketing improvements, while only four program participants focused solely on “bricks” improvements. By the end of this year, HDR, with the support of the Grills Fund and a Truist Foundation grant, will have distributed $41,430 in grants to small businesses in our historic district and compensated technical assistance providers at $2,860. Almost all technical assistance providers provided services at a discounted rate or in-kind.

All 20 program participants are still operational and have retained all their full-time staff members. None of the businesses in Bricks & Clicks have permanently closed.

As with many Main Street projects, collaboration was key. A 2020 Bricks and Clicks program would not have been possible without the support of initial grants and funders, the flexibility and generosity of technical assistance providers, the program partners that built the 2018 Bricks and Clicks program alongside us and worked with us again this year, and most importantly, the boundless determination and creativity found in our downtown businesses – even in the midst of a global pandemic!

About the Author: 

Erin Smith, Director of Special Projects, Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance (HDR), has been working and volunteering with HDR in various capacities since 2016. She holds a B.A. from Virginia Tech and a Masters of Public Administration from James Madison University. As Director of Special Projects, Erin is responsible for planning and executing HDR’s community events, as well as consulting with organizers hoping to plan their own events downtown. She also manages grant programs, special projects and initiatives central to HDR’s mission.