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Downtown Dave – My first year with DDA/Main Street

In my first year as Executive Director of Three Rivers DDA/Main Street, I have gotten to know our city in a way that I never knew as a kid. It’s been a challenge, a joy, and a blur of complex programs, learning as I go, and building relationships with people who don’t always get along. However, I expected challenges, and when I first received an offer, there were far more important factors that led me to accept.
My childhood summers saw Three Rivers’ last years as a thriving, traditional downtown: stores that carried hardware, clothing, jewelry, and many other things. My grandfather was a druggist at Hudson’s—the bright red, tiled building facing the Riviera. He served on civic boards and made late-night house calls delivering medicine. As my mother says, “he never met a stranger,” and he helped make Main Street a vibrant and special place. By the time I was old enough to understand, it was in decline: new businesses on the west side of town lured customers with easy access and low prices. Even as a kid, I wondered what would become of the old buildings and personal relationships.
As it turned out, the same thing was happening elsewhere, but towns were finding new ways to sustain vitality and businesses that fit the economic trends. In college, I learned of the Main Street program. It’s like a non-profit consultant, providing guidance to unique communities that commit to revitalization. Through 40+ years of research and experience, they have created a roadmap to show exactly how downtowns like ours can prosper. Destinations across the country today support a wealth of viable, sustainable downtown businesses, and investment trends point almost exclusively to downtowns—even without what Three Rivers has: vast parkland adjacent to a well-intact, historic downtown, three rivers all in one place, abundant nearby lakes, access to populations like Kalamazoo and South Bend and arteries like the Indiana Toll Road, or a great story to tell about people who make and do great things. For a community of low wages and depressed real estate, we have a lot to work with.
I was pleased to see Three Rivers embracing its assets. Local people saw opportunity and were working to implement it. That represented commitment—the most important factor in my decision. In my interviews, panelists asked intelligent, thoughtful questions that showed that they had been out doing hard work. They were putting their time, money, and sweat where their mouths were. That spoke volumes, and I wanted to work with that.
This isn’t to say it’s been all easy, of course, because it still takes effort, patience, and time. Since January, I have attended several Library board meetings. The conversation about their potential move downtown is important. The idea offers mutual benefits: it would bring foot traffic to the block and provide the growing number of investors who are looking at our downtown with an important vote of confidence, while having close, physical access to our cultural institutions, and to businesses that we are recruiting to promote a family-friendly street, would give the Library new opportunities and venues for visitation, support, and programming.
Several library board members have been opposed to moving for reasons also worth considering. I’ve been taking the time to have coffee with each of them, hearing out their concerns. I don’t know if I’ve changed any minds, but I am happy to have conversations. In a way, I feel it is more important to earn trust than to be right. I am pleased that an architectural study is taking place, and that the architects feel see viability in the bank building. I hope the board continues to explore that option. However, our community’s success will depend as much on the kind of relationships we choose to build as on the choices we make about how to invest.
Good relationships produce results. This year, 107 people came out on Community Cleanup Day for work that would have cost thousands. They included 86 citizens who believe that community takes work, and 21 staff from the DDA, Probation Center, DPS, City Hall, and the Fire Department who have invested their careers in this city and who volunteered their own time. Our Main Street program depends on such volunteers because it has a big job, but in the end, it will produce results in economic revitalization, diversification, and a stronger economy, so that the tax dollars that we pay, like our hardworking citizens, can get more done. There’s no easy road to prosperity, but we’re doing exactly what has proven successful elsewhere.
This is the first installment of a regular feature to keep you up on our work and progress. I look forward to talking about Three Rivers!

Submitted by Dave Vago, Executive Director of the Three Rivers Downtown Development Authority and Main Street Program. He spent summers growing up in Three Rivers, and has worked in the business of making great old places socially and commercially viable.

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