Main Street revisited: How local proprietor relationships drive sustainable community economic development
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The most established cities in America have one common thread running through them: Main Streets. Over 10,000 streets in the United States bear the name, Main, and even more commercial corridors, by different names, serve a similar purpose. The local, independent merchants, traditionally found on them, exchange vital goods and services, generate local wealth, and mobilize capital to protect the public good in ways that extend beyond the reach of conventional economic relationships. Despite this, Main Street merchants were expected to disappear with the forward march of globalization; as multinational businesses replaced small independent ones, few considered how communities might have lost more than simply a place to shop. Scholars, politicians and economists of late, have paid little attention to the loss of Main Street firms—partly because the numbers have not mandated it. Market indexes such as the GDP, GNP and Dow fail to explain how businesses impact community health—and they do not gauge Main Street's social significance. This study revisits the Main Streets of one city, to document how some local merchants play pivotal roles in community economic development—growth that prioritizes communities. Based on four years of action field research with hundreds of firms, and owner interviews, it documents how local and independent proprietors have taken leadership on community development initiatives in ways Wall Street firms have not, and arguably cannot, in a dual economy. It illustrates the rich social, economic and political textures of local merchants and Main Streets, detailing how they sustain and empower communities. Beyond making the case for Main Street merchants, the business and community relationships documented in this research can inform an emerging wave of social enterprises: businesses and organizations, which aim to extend their social and environmental reach beyond the bottom line.