A little preface to the press release we sent out in conjunction with the award announcement: The Top 10 Best Main Streets Award nominees were chosen by a panel of economics experts that have access to economic and community data from cities- large and small- throughout the United States. Simply being nominated for our innovative economic strategies and improvements in the local economy is an honor. One of the selection committee indicated that they looked for communities that have come a long way, and did so by activating their community, and I think Emporia wins on both counts. We aren’t a place with a lot of “old money;” we had to work really hard to create our own business opportunities, help entrepreneurs get started and give them the tools they need to expand.
Emporia, Kan.- The city of Emporia was named the Best Main Street in USA Today’s 10 Best Readers’ Choice Awards. The national contest included 20 cities which were nominated by a panel of subject matter experts in the areas of travel, tourism, and downtown economic development from the National Main Street Center and the American Planning Association. Main Streets competing in the contest held the responsibility of rallying votes within their local communities and beyond through grassroots marketing efforts and promotions. The contest began May 23rd and concluded on June 20th, with results posted on June 24th.
This announcement comes at a great time for the Emporia Main Street organization as it celebrates its 25th year anniversary in July. Founded in 1991 as a non-profit community agency, Emporia Main Street faced a downtown with a 40% vacancy rate and a lackluster spirit towards shopping local. Since then, over $86 million worth of development has occurred in the downtown area and now vacancies fluctuate between six and eight percent. By focusing on economic revitalization and preservation of historic shopping and business districts, Emporia Main Street has been able to help create a cultural shift for the Emporia community that emphasizes the unique elements of Emporia. Improved community pride manifests itself in a more diverse entrepreneurial economy, improved volunteerism, community advocacy and former residents returning home to Emporia more regularly.
Emporia Main Street Executive Director, Casey Woods, commented “This is an honor for all Emporians to share. A downtown belongs to all segments of a community, and the unique nature of the local businesses, events, historic buildings and culture that emanates from a downtown defines the vibrancy of a city. Great rural communities start with a great downtown, and we are blessed that local citizens have made Emporia Main Street a focal point in community and economic development efforts.”
As the founding city of Veterans Day and the home of two world class sporting events, the Dirty Kanza 200 and the Glass Blown Open, Emporia has an eclectic mix of unique businesses, attractions, and dining establishments. Through its Four Point Approach of design, promotion, business enhancement and organization, Emporia Main Street plays a supportive role to many business owners and organizations.
New and existing businesses come to Emporia Main Street for support with technical training, market research, and funding structures. Emporia Main Street has provided more than $1,000,000 in revolving zero interest loans that have helped a number of local businesses startup and expand. Emporia Main Street partners with institutions such as the Small Business Development Center, Flint Hills Technical College and Emporia State University on educational programs for entrepreneurs. One such program is the Start Your Own Business Class, which has helped start or expand sixty-four businesses. The organization also aids businesses through city infrastructure projects and helps create opportunities for developers to become part of the downtown community.
Woods added “Emporia is a community of doers. You don’t grow international events, start businesses, rehabilitate historic buildings and maintain a sense of volunteerism just by talking. Emporia prides itself on its ability to go beyond visions and planning to actually producing tangible results through innovation and an old fashioned, Midwestern work ethic. Our citizens and volunteers expect results from their commitment of time, talent and treasure- and the Emporia Main Street program has a history of solid results in the creation of an improving, sustainable, unique community that inspires local pride.”
Emporia Main Street is also well known in the community for the numerous events that they host throughout the year. On average, Emporia Main Street plays a part in over 36 events each year. Each spring The Taste of Emporia is held, which is an event that features many of the finest Kansas wineries, breweries, distilleries, and restaurants, giving attendees the opportunity to taste their local flavors. The organization also partners with local community groups for hosting events. Partnerships with such local community groups as Hispanics of Today and Tomorrow and Emporia Flatland Cruisers have brought Cinco de Mayo festivities and the classic car show downtown.
Emporia Main Street also hosts for several epic block parties throughout the spring and summer. Each year local business, Dynamic Discs, hosts the Glass Blown Open disc golf tournament that brings in over 1,200 visitors into the community for a week of disc golf activities ending with a celebration in downtown Emporia. Events for the summer kick off during the week following Memorial Day, with the town seeing a 8% growth in the city population during the weekend of the race thanks to the Dirty Kanza 200, the World’s leading gravel endurance race. With visitors coming from 46 states and 7 countries, Emporia Main Street rolls out the red carpet with a finish line party for 8,000 of their closest friends that has been said to rival the Champs-Élysées (the final stage of the Tour de France).
Emporia is also home to Emporia State University and Flint Hills Technical College which give the community a diverse student population. Emporia Main Street works diligently to provide opportunities for partnerships between both academic intuitions and the business community. In August, Emporia Main Street organizes the Back to School Block party, an event which showcases Main Street members to the 3,000 students that typically attend. Emporia Main Street is working with the School of Business and Career Services at Emporia State to develop a Community Intern Initiative with the end goal of growing local business opportunities for college graduates.
Event innovation to increase business traffic is a great way the organization works to help support its members. Whether it is bringing 8,000 visitors downtown to the Great American market each September, hosting semiannual Midnight Madness shopping events, or putting a modern spin on Bingo through their several “Quarter Manias”, Emporia Main Street is always coming up with new ways to get people interested in their community.
Another point of pride for the organization is the Veterans banners that one sees when visiting the heart of Emporia in November. This year, Emporia Main Street has plans to showcase over 250 Veterans throughout downtown and through the Emporia State University Campus.
Emporia Main Street attributes the success of the organization to the numerous volunteers and both the city and county governments that support its mission. In 2015, over 3,000 volunteer hours were logged at events, downtown clean ups, and various service projects. Woods explained, “Our partnerships with the City of Emporia and Lyon County have been critical to the success of Emporia Main Street. Our organization is a non-profit, public/private partnership built on the shared goal of creating a more vibrant local area. With the support of local governmental agencies, we’ve been able to create jobs, add businesses and improve the local tax base.”
Emporia Main Street hopes that the national recognition from this award will introduce downtown Emporia to other potential developers and visitors. Woods stated “Economies are about people. If we can activate our downtown through events, highlighting businesses, creating destinations and inviting people to our core more consistently, our economy wins.”
Woods added “Thank you to everyone in Emporia, throughout Kansas and all over the world that voted for Emporia as the nation’s top Main Street. We encourage you to experience all the fun and unique things our community has to offer! Please join us in celebrating our victory by attending out Midnight madness downtown shopping event on Thursday, July 21st. Our downtown Member businesses will be open from 8pm-midnight with sales and special promotions. For more information on our community visit www.emporiamainstreet.com or search for Emporia Main Street on social media to find out about all the new businesses, events and activities in our community.”
This award is in no way a “finish line” for us. What this award represents is a renewed spirit in the community that can push us to the next level. I hope everyone recognizes what a unique opportunity this is for Emporia. We’ve said for years that we can’t “out-big-box” the larger surrounding communities, but we are large enough that we can offer a dense, authentic and entrepreneurial experience that has largely been wiped out of larger communities. If we take the unique market position afforded to us, recognize the need for density and emphasize our core, we can do something special and long lasting. The advocacy that was demonstrated through this contest was absolutely outstanding. If we can replicate that same advocacy to continue our improvement in the community core, we will take another leap that will impact Emporia for generations.
We have been asked if we are having a “celebration” to recognize this huge community win. We’ve decided to weave some celebratory activities into our Midnight Madness. We would rather use this win to encourage local and regional support of businesses and our community supporters than have a “look at me” sort of moment, because it is the people that open businesses, create events and shop locally owned entities that made this award possible. We would much rather celebrate the team effort, and what better way to do that than a night out shopping, dining and being entertained in the number one ranked Main Street in the nation? So, make plans to come downtown (and invite all of your friends) for Midnight Madness on July 21st from 8:00 p.m. to Midnight.