State funding sought to help revitalize rural main streets, historic urban business districts
Among the projects of the Main Street Beatrice program was commissioning this mural, by local artist Tyler Rinne, to promote the downtown business district. (Courtesy Michael Sothan)
LINCOLN — A Nebraska program that helps revitalize small-town main streets and big-town historic districts pales in size compared to efforts in nearby states.
The nonprofit Nebraska Main Street Network runs on less than $40,000 a year from memberships and grants and has one part-time employee who works with 17 communities across the state.
By comparison, Missouri’s Main Street program gets $500,000 a year from the state and has a staff of nine that works with 163 towns.
Programs in Iowa and Wyoming also benefit from annual state funding of $1 million and $500,000, respectively.
Meanwhile, Nebraska’s Main Street program hasn’t gotten state funds in six years.
“Right now, we’re kind of running on fumes,” said Elizabeth Chase, the executive director of the Nebraska program.
On Wednesday, advocates for revitalizing historic shopping areas testified in favor of providing $250,000 a year to a grant program that might help the Nebraska Main Street program.
Such funding would allow the program here to help more communities with technical advice on efforts such as historic restoration of buildings, marketing main street businesses and helping entrepreneurs turn ideas into enterprises.
“We have programs for big businesses. But what about the mom-and-pop shops? There’s not as much,” said Michael Sothan, executive director of Main Street Beatrice.
The Beatrice program is an anomaly in Nebraska — it gets $150,000 a year from fundraisers, businesses and grants and has a staff of two, the largest program in the state.
It has also produced results, inspiring the opening of 30 new businesses in the downtown business district since 2016, Sothan told members of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee.
A brewery, pottery shop, boutique, speakeasy and freeze-dried food business are among the recent additions in downtown Beatrice.
State Sen. Myron Dorn of Adams, who represents the Beatrice area, said he’s seen the improvements that have come to the community of 12,300 residents.
State funding, contained in Dorn’s Legislative Bill 563, would allow more communities to launch programs and work on reenergizing their historic districts, the senator said.
Under the bill, which was introduced on behalf of the Nebraska Main Street Network, $250,000 a year would be given to History Nebraska to distribute as grants to organizations that provide education and technical expertise about main street revitalization, business growth and historic preservation.
Chase said if her office got funding, it would allow more “one-on-one” help to communities across the state.
“It’s economic development through historic restoration,” she said.
No one testified against LB 563 on Wednesday, and the bill received more than a dozen letters of support. The Appropriations Committee took no action following the hearing but will craft its proposed budget later in the 2023 session.
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