It was nearing starting time, and the conference room where the Main Street Business Grant Forum was being held was still completely empty, and it was becoming doubtful if many if any people would attend at all. As the Mains Street Coordinator, I’d spent the last hour setting out chairs, organizing a table of drinks and snacks, and rehearsing the program I was going to present. On top of this, I’d spent the last two weeks canvassing the city with fliers, hand delivering them to business owners when possible, in an effort to make my first real event as a participant in AmeriCorps’ Resource Assistance for Rural Environments (RARE) program a success. And now, just minutes before the forum’s six o’clock kickoff, it appeared that effort had been in vain.
However, just as six rolled around, a growing trickle of business owners and community members began to congregate in the conference room. Before long a crowd of just under 30 persons had assembled, a high number not even hoped for optimistically. Buoyed by this turnout, I launched into my prepared remarks, explaining to the gathered people how our Main Street Program worked, how it could help them find and complete grants, and how, ultimately, it would make Reedsport a better place to live and do business. The pinnacle of the evening was when I detailed surprise changes to the Reedsport Main Street’s flagship program, the Façade Improvement Grant. This grant had been around for a few years, and we’d done many very successful renovations under its guidelines, and because of this it was very popular amongst local business owners. However, it just wasn’t giving us the amount of impact we knew was needed in order to revitalize Main Street. This forum, and the feedback we received from business owners, would form the backbone of an entirely new type of program, the Business Improvement Grant.
The Business Improvement Grant was a reflection of the conditions and needs of Main Street in Reedsport. The catalyst revealing this need had been generated during the latest Façade Improvement Grant’s cycle. We had completed our most successful project to date, investing over $8,000 into a local business right on our Main Street, and the façade looked great. The problem? The owners could still not utilize the building for commercial activity because of the dilapidated state of the roof, an item considered too structurally and financially prohibitive for the Façade Grant. Knowing this fact, and that many other downtown buildings appeared to be in a similar predicament, Main Street decided to host the Business Grant Forum to not only educate local business on the resources available but to gather input from them in order to improve the efficacy of our operations. And, indeed, many of the businesses found the Façade Grant to be unable to fully achieve their business improvements. We heard about the need for repaired roofs, for rewired electrical systems, for better parking and lighting, and other idiosyncratic but equally pressing concerns. The Business Improvement Grant worked by taking the Façade Grant framework and expanding it to cover these diverse projects.
Originally concerned that it would be too short of an event, I was delightfully surprised to find the enthusiasm of the group to ask questions and engage in conversation eventually forced me to end the occasion for fear that it would run too long. It was heartening to see the passion these business owners had for their trade and their community. Even more fulfilling to me was the way that I was able to help both their trade and community through the information and programs that I was talking about. Even months after the event I am still receiving phone calls and visits from business and property owners asking me questions about opportunities and grants that Main Street could help them get.
While the success of this forum may appear posturing and limited in overall impact, it illustrated to me the core of what AmeriCorps and RARE service is all about. This was not just about storefronts or filled vacancies. This was about people and the buildings and businesses that constituted their lives. It became apparent that one couldn’t separate the members of a community from its businesses because these things were one and the same. The hours of these stores were in reality not 9-5, five days a week, but 24/7, actual full time, and jobs for the owners. For me to be able to bring something tangible to these people, to offer them real hope for much need business improvements, was the apex of community service to me.
A bit about the author, Emerson Hoagland:
- Currently serving as Main Street Coordinator for the Reedsport Main Street Program.
- Bachelor of Arts in Political Science with a Minor in Geography, University of Oklahoma, Spring 2016
- People may be surprised… “that I play several guitar and violin type instruments.”
Does community development work interest you? Are you looking for a life changing experience in rural Oregon? Learn more about serving with the RARE AmeriCorps Program via our website: https://rare.uoregon.edu/application-process/member-application-process