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.

A new director and new approach at the Governors’ Institute on Community Design

Jody Tableporter, Director, Governors' Institute on Community Design (Image Credit: Harvard University)

For the past six years, NEA has partnered with the Environmental Protection Agency to sponsor the Governors’ Institute on Community Design. The Governors’ Institute conducts state-level work on design, sustainability, and placemaking to foster connected, economically vital communities that tread lightly on the environment.

Jody Tableporter, the new Director of the Governors’ Institute, had this to say as she took up her new role:


NEA: It is a great job, but a challenging one. Are you up for the challenge?

Jody Tableporter: I love the complexity and challenge of working across policy, projects, and place. It probably helps that I’ve been in the middle of delivering complex projects like the expansion of the Tate Modern – things don’t get much messier than that!


NEA: What do you hope to accomplish while you’re at the Governors’ Institute?

JT: I’d like to blend the best of design, economic development, and city building to help states help communities. This means bringing the best experts and proven practice to the toughest problems, as well as piloting new solutions.


NEA: What do you hope to learn while you’re at the Governors’ Institute?

JT: Despite having a job that is focused, analytical, and “big picture” by nature, I love experiencing what is unique and extraordinary in communities, whether it be a locally grown arts organization or amazing architecture. I will be soaking up as much as possible on my trips to meet with governors and state administrators.


NEA: What experience from past jobs will you put to use in your new role?

JT: I worked in industry strategy and real estate development before combining that experience in city and regional placemaking. I have been on architecture design teams and I have worked with engineers on infrastructure delivery, with businesses and industry clusters, and as a public funder of major projects and programs.


NEA: What are you most proud of accomplishing during your career to date?

JT: Creating a plan for South London that supported arts organizations as part of an economic strategy. Many questioned whether the Tate, South Bank Centre, and the Young Vic Theatre, all established London arts institutions, needed more government funding. I never did. They have had a tremendous impact on the local economy, as well as London’s place in the world.


NEA: Given the types of programs and projects you’ve overseen throughout your career, how would you define “Creative Placemaking?”

JT: Using creative design to plan and coordinate physical projects, e.g., transit corridors; capitalizing on local arts organizations and clusters to anchor the economics and heart of communities. After all, creative placemaking is about creating great places that foster entrepreneurs and cultural industries that generate jobs and attract businesses.


NEA: We’ve been talking a lot about the relationship between creative industry and the economy. What do you think is the link?

JT: Creative industry is a local economic driver; it is one of those vital economic “clusters” that is almost universal.


NEA: Tell us one of your guilty pleasures?

JT: Snuggling down with my family to watch old musicals; it is what I did with my family growing up.


NEA: Any last words?

JT: Can’t wait to get going!