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Great Downtowns Growing Cities Toolbox

Local downtown development organizations carry out a wide range of programs and projects requiring specialized knowledge and resources.  This toolbox contains tools that downtown development executive directors and volunteers can use to assist downtown businesses, carry out downtown improvement projects, provide information for residents and visitors and run their own organizations effectively.  Some of the tools can be downloaded and posted on local websites.  Others can be linked to local websites.  New tools will be added over time.  

New Ideas for Downtown Development Organizations and Businesses

Innovations in Organization Management
Changing lifestyles, declining public funding and a crowded nonprofit sector make it challenging for nonprofit organizations to find and retain well-qualified executive directors, recruit and keep volunteers, develop sustainable funding, and work within traditional committee structures.  CGS led an extended conversation among 36 successful Main Street executive directors on meeting these challenges.  This report includes their experiences and ideas, along with current thinking from nonprofit leaders nationwide.  The findings are then distilled into an easy to use Organization Solutions Grid.  Read it here.

Ideas for Rural Communities and Small Towns 

NEW! Some Strategies for Small Downtown Revitalization, presented by N. David Milder at the 7 Rivers Alliance Revitalize Storefronts Conference
Vibrant Rural Communities Case Studies Series 

Business Recruitment and Entrepreneurship
NEW! Quality-of-Life-Based Retail Recruitment in Towns and Cities with Populations Under about 35,000, by N. David Milder
Business Starts in the Midwest: potential entrepreneurial groups

Should your Downtown Development Organization Start a Business?
It is becoming increasingly common for nonprofit organizations to engage in managing business ventures when state laws and regulations permit. Main Street organizations may find these ventures especially valuable as a potential source of revenue and as a way to encourage downtown growth. If your organization is considering starting a venture, there are several points to consider. (None of these items should be interpreted as offering advice or suggestions for a nonprofit to undertake a business activity.)

  • Non-profits have strict IRS regulations so must be careful that they have legal status to engage in the types of activities under consideration. Seeking legal advice is always the first step.
  • A business can provide increased financial self-sufficiency, thereby decreasing the need to fund-raise and therefore can improve relations within the community.
  • As a nonprofit, it is essential and important to balance philanthropy and commercialization since the organization’s focus must stay on its mission which can be diverted in pursuing financial success.
  • A nonprofit managed business may be perceived as unfair competition by other businesses who do not have access to grants, volunteer labor, or in-kind donations.
  • Successfully running a profitable business takes different skills than managing a successful Main Street organization. Do those skills exist in your organization? If not, where can you acquire them?
  • Carefully following legal and tax advice is essential in successfully managing a venture especially as regulations and business status changes.

The following article discusses the above points in more detail: Enterprising Nonprofits, Harvard Business Review

These articles provide practical information on starting a business:

Can a church coffee shop be a nonprofit? CNN Money
How to Start a Nonprofit Thrift Store, .ORG
Taking Care of Business: Use of a For-Profit Subsidiary by a Nonprofit Organization, American Bar Association
Community Supported Businesses, Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs Rural Research Report

Creative Economy

Movie Theaters

"Movie Theaters," by N. David Milder

NEW! Of the 31 operating historic theaters in North Dakota identified by one researcher, 19 are community-run. See: Patricia Leigh Brown, ” Movie Houses Find Audience in the Plains,” New York Times, July 4 ,2010

NEW! In NY, the Adirondack Film Society and the Adirondack North Country Association (ANCA) created a Go Digital Or Go Dark program that won state grants and used the Razoo online crowdfunding service to raise matching funds from local residents. See:  Paul Post, “Small Theaters in Adirondacks Face Choice in Switch to Digital: Pay or Perish,” New York Times, December 25, 2013, 

North American Industry Classification System

Services for Businesses

Local Downtown Development organizations provide assistance to existing downtown businesses, businesses thinking of opening a downtown location and entrepreneurs considering starting a new business.  Here you will find tools useful to businesses in all stages of operation.

What to Consider Before Starting a Business
Business Plan Template
Monthly Cash Flow Estimator
Self Employment Payroll Tax Estimator (2013)
Payroll Tax Estimator

Organization Management

Managing a local Downtown Development organization requires skills in many areas including fund raising, budgeting, staffing and volunteers, communications and more. This section of the toolbox includes resources useful in the day to day management of the organization and in planning for the future.

Local Program Self-Assessment Tool
Operating Reserves: What are they? Do we need them? How do we get them?
Annual Budgeting Checklist
Budgeting: A guide for small nonprofits
501c3 v 501c6

Market Study Guide

A market study provides valuable information on downtown’s potential and guidance in developing a plan for downtown growth.  The following websites provide guides to understanding the market study process and help in preparing your own market study.

Downtown and Business District Market Analysis provided by University of Wisconsin Extension
Market Analysis for Main Street Provided by Ulster County, New York Planning Department

Historic Preservation and Design Resources

Downtown Development design projects include everything from street furniture to historic building restorations.  The tools in this section can help with a variety of types of projects as well as educate Main Street volunteers and area residents.

Preservation Resources

Design archive 
Anatomy of a Main Street building 
Basic maintenance for historic buildings 
National Register of Historic Places
Certified Local Governments

Green Design

Green (sustainable) preservation 



These brochures can explain the Downtown Development Approach to the general public, city officials, potential donors and others. There are three different brochures to choose from, depending on the audience.

Public Brochure (Red PDF)
Intended for the general public or anyone who needs information on the importance of downtown and the basics of the Main Street Approach.

Future Main Street Communities Brochure (Blue PDF)
Intended for people from non-Main Street communities who are interested in revitalizing their downtowns and may consider using the Main Street Approach.

Main Street Supporters Brochure (Green PDF)
Intended for government officials, donors, and others who may become involved in or support Main Street, this brochure explains why downtown is important, how the Main Street Approach encourages downtown revitalization and the results that have been achieved in Illinois Main Street communities.

Download the brochures you need. Print them two-sided and fold in half length-wise. You may want to attach a business card with local contact information.


For additional information about Great Downtowns Growing Cities, please contact:

Mim Evans
Research Associate
Center for Governmental Studies, NIU

Norman Walzer
Senior Research Scholar
Center for Governmental Studies, NIU