The power of public-private partnerships

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By Sherry Robinson

Tucumcari for the first time. Other than a few lawyers’ offices, its lifeless main street was a canyon of vacant storefronts and hollow buildings.
A Kmart had opened on the outskirts of town, and one business after another abandoned downtown to be close to the action. The only retail was a place that sold Bully Bags, little bags made of bulls’ testicles, and business wasn’t exactly booming.
Other than the Bully Bags, Tucumcari’s scene was playing out in many small towns.
When the National Trust for Historic Preservation created the MainStreet program in 1980, its mission was to stem urban decay. The organization soon discovered that the nation’s small towns were losing the battle against another kind of blight.
The New Mexico Economic Development Department launched its MainStreet program
in 1985 to stimulate local economies and preserve historic buildings.
This week, I’d like to pause amidst the nastiness of the political campaigns and the vitriol aimed at “big government” and “big business” to celebrate the success of a partnership between government and business. New Mexico MainStreet is celebrating its 25th anniversary.
MainStreet has been a kind of stone soup. It didn’t just sprinkle money on towns for local improvements but began by providing tools – an organizational structure and expertise in planning, marketing and fundraising. With know-how and a core of citizens, business owners and property owners working together, it’s surprising what can happen.
The first town to sign up was Silver City, which in 1985 was a down-at-the-heels mining town; its core was largely boarded up, deserted and forgotten.
A few weeks ago, I walked up and down streets packed with cafes, galleries, and retail stores.
By the numbers, Silver City’s MainStreet program parlayed $500,000 in funding from the town into $5.1 million in improvements.
That’s the stone soup effect. Government seeds the effort, but once private sources see momentum, they’re more likely to rehab their buildings and open new businesses. Similarly, when legislators see the MainStreet label, they can be more assured they’re spending on a well-thought-out project to benefit a community and not just another questionable piece of pork.
Another success story is Artesia, where locals organized their MainStreet program in 1998. What followed was another step-by-step revitalization that would transform the main street into a landscaped, well lighted, and downright pretty hive of activity.
That’s not all. Proving that northern New Mexico doesn’t have a corner on the arts, Artesia boasts what I believe is the greatest concentration of public art in the state, from the tile images by Shel Neymark to the series of History in Bronze sculptures.
A friend and I were passing through during one of the year’s worst dust storms and thought we’d look at Artesia through the car windows. But when we got to “The Derrick Floor,” a multi-sculpture work by Vic Payne, I had to get out and take pictures. It’s an amazing tribute to all the people who work in the oil industry.
Artesia MainStreet isn’t resting on its laurels. It has plans to continue working on streetscapes and renovating a park.
Obviously, the downturn has affected MainStreet, but organizers note their downtowns are more resilient, and they’ve become more resourceful in identifying funding sources.
But not every effort requires funding. Tucumcari, the newest member, confirmed that its loss to out-of-town grocery shopping exceeded the revenues of its grocery store. It’s now creating a network of local food producers and buyers who want to buy local.
Currently, MainStreet has 23 member projects and eight arts and cultural districts. Over its history, it’s served more than 45 communities, most of them rural, and created 2,772 new businesses. It’s also been involved in 2,512 building renovations and drawn $224 million in private investment.
Happy Birthday, MainStreet!

Sherry Robinson is a columnist for New Mexico News ServicesThe