Reversing Entropy in Downtown Buildings Part 1
Jim Correll, director Fab Lab ICC at Independence Community College, Independence Kansas
I’ve always thought of entropy as the natural deterioration of things when left alone. Following a technical physics definition, I found a secondary definition; 2. lack of order or predictability; gradual decline into disorder. Entropy occurs in the natural order of things so much that we don’t notice. Plants and animals die and, one way or another, are returned, slowly, to natural elements. If you are spiritual and/or religious, you recognize entropy as an ingenious element of a universe designed by the Master. Entropy is essential to life as we know it. Imagine a world where dead vegetation and dead animals just continue to pile up, never returning to natural elements.
Things we build are subject to entropy too. Homes, buildings, roads and all manner of things are subject to a natural return to the elements unless we maintain and repair them. Most of our downtown buildings were built in a different economic era when the businesses within them made enough money to reward the business owner while keeping the buildings in good repair. Entropy of our downtown buildings started with the urban, and maybe even rural, sprawl of the 1950’s when there was movement away from living near downtown areas in favor or the suburbs (i.e. the burbs.) Entropy of downtown buildings continues today with box stores and Internet sales constantly working to take away market share of downtown businesses thus leaving little money to keep buildings maintained.
Many communities across America have huge efforts going on to revitalize downtown areas and reverse the entropy that has affected the downtown buildings for decades. The National Main Street program is one of the most visible and successful organizations providing guidance and structure to facilitate this rebirth.
In 2007, I became involved in the effort for Coffeyville to become part of the Kansas Main Street program. I believe Independence was among the first five or six communities in Kansas to join the state’s new Main Street program in the 1980’s. Independence Main Street remains strong today. Sidebar: The Kansas Main Street program was foolishly discontinued during former Governor Sam Brownback’s administration. Starting next year, Governor Laura Kelly’s administration will be reinstating the program.
In a competitive process to become a Kansas Main Street member, the organizing committee had to learn a lot about what the Main Street program was and that the main purpose of the program was to preserve historic buildings in the downtown areas around the state. The model is patterned after the four-point approach of the time-tested model of the National Main Street Trust program “Main Street America.”
I’m going to self-interpret the four-point approach here, but you can see the “real” interpretations at www.mainstreet.org. The local main street organizations are supposed to perform work in all four areas. Promotion tends to be the most visible but work in the other three areas is essential for the viability of the local organizations.
Economic Vitality – This point has to do with helping businesses become and remain viable to provide not only the money needed to survive and thrive but also to keep their buildings in good shape. Whether the business owns or rents the building, there has to be enough funds for upkeep whether directly or in the form of sufficient rent payments so the landlord can do the upkeep.
Design – This point has to do with the overall design of the downtown main street areas and also includes guidelines and suggestions for the “look” of the buildings. For instance, where possible, real windows on the upper floors are preferable to the “boarded up” look.
Promotion – The most visible aspect in communities with a main street organization. On-going Main Street promotions, around central themes, strive to get people to come to the downtown area with fun and interesting events and activities.
Organization – This point has to do with legal structure and how the organization operates. Most Main Street groups have a paid Director and most of the other work is done by dedicated volunteers on the board of directors and work committees.
The key to revitalizing and restoring our downtown buildings, indeed, our downtown districts is to make the districts viable business centers, making enough money to provide not only for the business owners but also to keep the buildings maintained.
In part 2, we’ll take a look at how our laws, policies and ordinances are hindering and even preventing the revitalization and preservation of our historic downtown buildings and what changes we might consider to recognize that neither building entropy nor the reversal of entropy are quick propositions, but rather take place over time.
Jim Correll is the director of Fab Lab ICC at the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship on the campus of Independence Community College. He can be reached at (620) 252-5349, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @jimcorrellks. Archive columns and podcast at jimcorrell.com.