State policy to support Main Street (Part 3 of 3): On the ground in Fowler, Colorado

Fowler, Colorado: Location of the proposed SMSI intersection improvement project at the downtown intersection of St. Hwy 50 and St. Hwy 167 (Main St.). Pictured in the lower righthand corner is a draft intersection improvement plan: click on the image to see the full-size version. (Photo courtesy of Nancy Hazlett)

In the first two parts of this series, we looked at the challenges facing Main Streets and spoke with Susan Kirkpatrick, former Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, about the Sustainable Main Streets Initiative (SMSI) to see how state government can be part of the solution. In this third part, we ask: What impact does this state-led program have at the ground level – on Main Street itself?

The impact of the SMSI can be seen in Fowler, a town of just over 1,200 people, which was one of five Colorado communities selected to pilot the initiative. Being selected as a SMSI pilot community “planted a seed of enthusiasm in the general community that has also carried over and further helped to create positive energy and interest in other local projects, such as the renewable energy efforts currently underway in our town,” writes Nancy Hazlett, Fowler’s SMSI Project Champion. She continued:

The SMSI project not only launched a worthwhile traffic/pedestrian safety project, but has also offered great opportunities for structured community education, which will be beneficial as we proceed with other SMSI project goals related to issues such as housing and health care. There seems to be a renewed sense of community pride surfacing as a result of the overall effort.

An important lesson from Colorado’s SMSI program is that it does not always take new funding to make a difference. SMSI does not have a dedicated funding source. Instead, the initiative is intended to streamline the delivery of existing state programs and resources to local communities. And in Fowler, Nancy explains, the new system works:

Becoming more familiar with the technical assistance that is available and learning how we as a community canutilize it to our benefit has been very worthwhile! The SMSI project has provided great opportunities to break down longstanding barriers, whether perceived or real, that separated government from small town rural Colorado. We’ve learned that a tremendous amount of good can come with better understanding of purposes and processes of government.

Fowler was selected to pilot SMSI in part because the town had embraced sustainability. The town went through a community visioning process in 2009 to develop a 2035 Comprehensive Plan, which reflects the shared vision “to become one of the most sustainable communities in Colorado.”

Fowler residents participate in a public meeting regarding the Main Street intersection improvement project. (Photo courtesy of Nancy Hazlett)

Fowler residents pride themselves on their Main Street, which is infused with Western small-town culture and features many historic structures. They envision a Fowler in 2035 that invests in these downtown assets while embracing new economic opportunities, including alternative energy. Achieving economic, environmental, and social sustainability is a big vision for a small town, and their leadership is gaining recognition – Fowler recently won the Wirth Chair Sustainable Cities Award.

Colorado’s Sustainable Main Streets Initiative is a great example of state government stepping up to support small town downtowns, even during a time of budget constraints. Coordinating and improving the delivery of existing services helps communities like Fowler make sure Main Streets remain a quintessential part of American culture.


Check out the previous posts in this series:

State policy to support main street (Part 2 of 3): An interview with Susan Kirkpatrick

GICD’s last post discussed the important cultural and economic role of well-designed small town downtowns – and identified the need to reverse years of disinvestment through better planning practices. Fortunately, some states are leading the way and have undertaken policy efforts to revitalize their Main Streets.

We spoke with Susan Kirkpatrick, former Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, about one such effort launched by the Ritter Administration in 2010: the Sustainable Main Streets Initiative (SMSI).

Governors’ Institute on Community Design: Tell us about the Sustainable Main Streets Initiative. How did it start? What does it mean for Colorado communities?

Susan Kirkpatrick: The state of Colorado and many of its cities and towns are experiencing very serious budget challenges. The Sustainable Main Streets Initiative was a yearlong pilot project in 2010 to test a model for state/local cooperation to leverage scarce resources. Former Governor Bill Ritter sought to break down silos among state agencies and across existing community development organizations to leverage resources and expertise to assist local communities achieve specific desired outcomes. [GICD note: more information on desired community outcomes and guiding principles can be found here (PDF).]

GICD: Why create a program focused on main streets?

SK: One way to identify a vital community is to look at its “Main Street”, the place where citizens go to shop, work, and gather to talk and to celebrate. The town square is an essential element of human history but some of Colorado’s main streets are declining and the Ritter administration thought we could do more to help, in spite of our financial constraints.

Colorado has been part of the branded Main Streets® program from the National Trust for Historic Preservation which works in a systematic way to help with revitalization but we wanted to bring a broader team of players from state agencies to work with local citizens on downtown improvement. That is why we created the program focused on main streets.

GICD: Why is it important for state government to support community design and planning? Isn’t that a local issue?

SK: Local government is not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution; local governments exist by virtue of state legislative direction. In Colorado, state agencies have great respect for local control and preferences but we also recognize our responsibility for community vitality. Just think about how state highways affect community design and planning! Imagine how difficult it would be for a small town to ensure water quality for visitors without oversight and assistance from a state agency. States and their local cities and towns are partners in the pursuit of quality of life for citizens, though it is hard to break down the silos to make the partnerships more effective.

What sorts of efforts have you seen in the pilot communities since the Sustainable Main Streets Initiative was launched?

SK: Two of the pilot communities, Monte Vista and Fowler, developed agreements with the Colorado Department of Transportation for meaningful improvements for pedestrians in their downtowns. The City of Rifle created a plan to redevelop an important commercial site at the entrance to its downtown. The area in Denver known as Five Points created a Master Plan for the district that has been incorporated into the City of Denver’s neighborhood planning process. This was a breakthrough for Five Points. These specific outcomes were achieved in spite of the very short timeframe – eight months of work by state agency personnel and community volunteers.

The below video, from late 2010, explores in greater detail the innovative Sustainable Main Streets Initiative launched during the final year of Governor Ritter’s Administration:




The Sustainable Main Streets Initiative brought together multiple state agencies to support enhanced livability in communities around Colorado. In the third and final part of this GICD series on small town downtown design, we will look at the exciting changes underway in Fowler, Colorado – one of the SMSI pilot communities – and how state government has supported their livability efforts.

State policy to support Main Street (Part 1 of 3): Revitalizing small town downtowns

Vacant storefronts in downtown in Richford, Vermont (Image Credit: Wayne Senville)

Main Streets are a quintessential part of American culture. For generations they have served as the center of small town and neighborhood life. They have been mythologized in literature (think Thornton Wilder’s Our Town), were the backdrop for Robert Preston’s Music Man, and have been immortalized by musicians from John Mellencamp to the Rolling Stones.

In the post-war years, however, residents of suburbs and small towns around the country have watched many of their downtown commercial and social hubs wither. With the rise of the automobile, as well as other factors, more and more families moved far from town centers. Businesses eventually followed. Today, sprawling development continues to stretch out towns while big box retailers take away trade from the Main Street shops – the butcher, the hardware store, the five-and-dime. In many communities, high vacancy rates have replaced a bustling streetscape.

An important part of American culture is under threat.

A key to revitalizing these downtowns is linking preservation and economic growth – not preservation anchored solely in history and design aesthetics, but practical preservation focused on place-based economic development. In other words, capitalizing on what makes each Main Street or downtown area visually and culturally unique.

Historic, vibrant Main Street design in Skaneatles, New York (Image Credit: EPA Smart Growth)

Unfortunately, a complicated web of government policies and investments can make it difficult, and sometimes illegal, for rehabilitation efforts or new construction to reflect traditional Main Street aesthetics with street-level businesses, upper-story housing, and wide, pedestrian friendly sidewalks. State government has an important role to play in overcoming these barriers.

But what does this role look like? In the second part of this series about downtown design and revitalization, we will speak with state leaders to get an inside look at how state government supports these cultural hubs.

The Governors’ Institute on Community Design®, a NEA leadership initiative in partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency and Smart Growth America, tackles state policy related to a wide range of growth, development and design challenges. The Governors’ Institute works directly with governors on policies and processes to bridge the gap between state government, local government, and on-the-ground placemaking initiatives.

Want to hear more about creative placemaking and design projects at the NEA? Visit the Art Works blog.


Check out the other posts in this series: