By Lydia Felty, Main Street Resource Coordinator

In 2022, the Washington State Main Street Program released a resiliency study that showed that businesses located in Washington’s designated Main Street Communities rebounded from the pandemic at a faster rate than businesses in similar districts without the presence of a Main Street organization. Many Main Street activities, including marketing, promotions, and creative use of public spaces, contributed to this resiliency. Local Main Street organizations host so many ongoing programs that support small businesses, especially microbusinesses and entrepreneurs. Here we share some of our favorite trends and stories of creating entrepreneurial ecosystems in downtown districts across Washington State.

We first turn our eyes to farmers markets across the state. A number of our Main Streets have taken on the development and coordination of markets that support local farmers, artisans, and artists. Markets in Puyallup, Pasco, Yakima, Walla Walla, Gig Harbor, and Prosser are all backed by Main Street—to name just a few! When a successful farmers market takes place in a downtown district, there are many positive outcomes, not least of which is the supportive environment provided to market vendors looking to expand their business to a bricks-and-mortar location.

Business grants are another way that Main Street organizations can support small business resiliency in their downtown districts. The City of Ferndale demonstrated their own investment in Main Street’s ability to effect this kind of impact, allocating $850,000 in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to the Ferndale Downtown Association to help them hire their first executive director, coordinate organizational programs for three years, and enhance their downtown core through individual business grants.

Main Street organizations have also taken the lead in growing small businesses in their communities. We’ve seen the development and growth of Main Street-run incubators in Aberdeen, Moses Lake, and Mount Vernon. In 2022, two organizations in our network—the Colfax Downtown Association and Downtown Walla Walla Foundation—were awarded grants from the Department of Commerce’s New Small Business Innovation Fund to develop business incubators.

In other efforts to build entrepreneurial ecosystems, the Renton Downtown Partnership (RDP) is currently launching their Main Street Entrepreneur Workshop and Pitch Competition. Entrepreneurs looking to open small businesses or expand current operations downtown will receive coaching from industry leaders as they walk through each step of the process, from defining their business idea to registering and launching their business. As a finale, contestants will pitch their idea to a panel of judges for cash and non-cash prizes totaling more than $30,000. “We want to empower all the contestants, not just the winners,” Sue Bollinger, chair of RDP’s Economic Vitality Committee, said, “and provide the know-how and mentorship they need to be successful in their journey, whether it leads them to a storefront in downtown Renton or elsewhere.”

In Grandview, we’re seeing an initiative with similar goals: a business pitch competition called Show of Hands. After contestants submit preliminary applications and full business plans (with support from Main Street Grandview), established local business owners will select three contestants for a “Shark Tank”-style pitch at a larger fundraising event. The pitch with the largest vote by “show of hands” will receive the funding.

That spirit of empowerment is what Main Street-led entrepreneurial support is all about. Local Main Street directors and volunteers build relationships of trust with entrepreneurs and small business owners while simultaneously spending the time necessary to learn about resources available to them and fill the gaps with creative programming. When a business does open its doors in a Main Street district, they are met with enthusiasm, dedication, and a sense of community that makes all the difference during good times and when challenges inevitably arise.

Looking across the state in 2022, our Communities welcomed 380 new businesses; saw 78 businesses expand in square footage, number of employees, or major business offerings; and created 1,237 new jobs. We also recorded 57,898 volunteer hours (a time investment valued at $1,734,045) and $100,970,182 in private and public community investment. Looking at the numbers, it feels safe to say that as our Main Streets support their communities, their communities delight in contributing their own resources. It’s solid proof that the work of our Main Streets prioritizes people and seeks to make everything they do a community-driven effort. In other words, we’re proud to see our network living up to an oft-repeated Main Street motto: “With, not for.”

Resiliency Study               Microenterprise Study               Main Street Business Incubators

The owners of Serfes Foods in Colfax. Photo courtesy of the Colfax Downtown Association.

The Downtown Aberdeen Association’s volunteer crew at the Aberdeen Summerfest. Photo courtesy of Rick Moyer.

Top of page: The Renton Downtown Partnership farmers market in Renton. Photo courtesy of Christain Jones.