Revitalize Rural Downtowns

The Opportunity

Rural downtowns are more likely to possess intact historic structures than their larger urban counterparts, because rural downtowns largely escaped the blight removal and redevelopment trend that struck many urban downtowns.[1] Historic downtowns have long been viewed as an important built asset in rural communities, and their revitalization has been touted as a source of economic opportunity.[2]  Downtown revitalization has been credited with creating jobs, strengthening the local economy, encouraging and supporting local entrepreneurship, increasing housing options, and attracting tourism.[3] Some of the most successful revitalization efforts also result in higher levels of social and civic participation due to community engagement in the revitalization process.[4]

How the Tactic Is Applied

  • Use historic preservation as the foundation for downtown revitalization
  • Evolving Practice: Revitalization Grant Programs

Use Historic Preservation as the Foundation for Downtown Revitalization

N.C. Main Street Center (North Carolina)
HandMade in America (North Carolina)

Working throughout North Carolina, the N.C. Main Street Center employs the National Historic Preservation Trust’s Main Street approach to community revitalization.  The Center provides technical assistance and support to small towns with populations under 50,000, and in doing so, it hopes to reestablish downtowns as the center of their communities, by enhancing the look of the downtown area and diversifying the economic base of the Main Street area.[5]  Small towns entering the program work with the Center to create—and then implement—a vision for downtown revitalization.[6]  Since 1980, the Center has worked with almost 90 municipalities across the state.

In Western North Carolina, HandMade in America, through its Small Town Revitalization Program, works with rural towns with populations under 2,000 to revitalize the community’s physical and civic infrastructure.[7]  Towns in this program are typically too small to hire a town manager, so HandMade helps community residents develop leadership capacity around the revitalization effort. When outside expertise is required, Handmade provides technical assistance and links participating communities to resources and funding opportunities.[8]  The program encourages each town to focus on its unique assets and opportunities during the visioning and planning process.  In recent examples, the town of Todd focused its initial revitalization efforts on a summer music series, while the town of Hayesville built a bike trail to capitalize on its natural heritage.[9]

Evolving Practice: Revitalization Grant Programs

A handful of rural communities are reportedly experimenting with revitalization grants to spur real property improvements to historic downtown structures.[10] Small towns typically do not possess the resources to offer substantial up-front grants for rehabilitation activities. Under limited circumstances, however, it may be possible for these towns to promise future grants over time to an owner who promises to rehabilitate a structure and who will pay higher real property taxes as a result.

Grant programs along these lines vary depending on the circumstances of individual communities and the statutory authority upon which the grants are based, but the basic model is as follows. Aprivate property owner must first agree to make improvements to a qualifying structure as designated by the town consistent with state law. Qualifying structures may include historic properties, blighted properties in designated redevelopment areas, or structures to be improved for the benefit of low- or moderate-income persons (such as affordable housing).[11]In return, the local government (a city or county or both) agrees to pay a cash grant to the owner each year over a period of years in an amount not to exceed the additional tax collected as a result of the improvements to the structure. Local governments seeking to implement such a grant program should seek legal advice to ensure strict compliance with statutory and constitutional requirements.

Learn More

Judi Jetson
Director of Small Towns Program
Handmade in America
Asheville, NC
828-252-0121 x304

On the Internet

North Carolina Main Street Center

National Trust for Historic Preservation – Main Street Center


[1] Dagncy Faulk, The Process and Practice of Downtown Revitalization, 23 Review of Pol’y Res. 625, 629 (2005) (recounting literature explaining why small towns are more likely than large urban downtowns to contain historic structures).

[2] Kent A. Robertson, The Main Street Approach to Downtown Development: An Examination of the Four-Point Program, 21 J. Architectural and Planning Res. 55, 70 (2004).

[3] See, e.g., Faulk, , note 256, at 630 (describing job creation but noting the difficulty in attributing measures of success to downtown revitalization efforts).

[4] Kent Robertson, Main Street Partnering, 1 Econ. Dev. 53-59 (2002) (observing that strong partnerships and relationships are key to successful downtown revitalization).

[5] Interview with Liz Parham, Director, North Carolina Main Street Center, North Carolina Department of Commerce (Mar. 24, 2010). 

[6] Ibid.

[7] Interview with David Quinn, Small Towns Program, Handmade in America (Sept. 21, 2009).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Interview with Liz Parham, Director, North Carolina Main Street Center, North Carolina Department of Commerce (Mar. 24, 2010).

[11] See C. Tyler Mulligan, Cash Incentives for Revitalizing Main Street, Community and Economic Development in North Carolina and Beyond(Jan. 12, 2010),