The opening session for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Main Street Program (Building a a Sustainable Future) set the tone. Authenticity is downtown’s strength.
Doug Loescher, Executive Director of the National Main Street Program, welcomed the 1,600 attendees to the historic 5th Avenue Theater, noting that it was the largest gathering in the organization’s 29-year history. He introduced Julie Wilkerson, the State Director of Community, Trade, & Economic Development, who said “Great downtowns don’t just happen” and recognized that it takes countless volunteer hours to achieve truly sustainable vitality.
Mayor Gary Nickels welcomed the conference to the city saying that sustainability is “not just how we power our cites but how we build them.” He looked forward to a future in which “the biggest transportation decision will be what color shoes do I want to wear when I walk to work.”
The keynote speaker, award-winning author Timothy Egan, said that in his experience, the key to sustainability is authenticity. He said that solutions will not come from the outside but that “the answers are right in front of us.” He advised that our economic development plans “must be connected to place.”
Egan pointed out the misguided plans of recent years. In his role as Economic Development Reporter for the New York Times, he studied various communities in the Great Plains. He learned that 7/8ths of the counties in Oklahoma turned fields into industrial parks in hopes of attracting the next Microsoft and they all sit empty. He found that communities that enjoyed the greatest success built on their existing, authentic assets.
He also talked about all the towns in northern Washington that focused on the tourist trade instead of building local businesses on a sustainable base. It became a question of “who’s going to be this year’s hot destination.” He noted one northern success story, Astoria, rejected the tourism trap and sported bumper stickers that said “We Ain’t Quaint.” He speculated that the source of this campaign was the Finn Clubs that hosted happy hours at 6 am.
He was optimistic about the future of sustainability, noting both hope, University of Washington students’ buttons that read “Sustainability is Sexy,” and fear, the Jesuit community that has taken a vigorous role in the issue warning “if we don’t do something, we’re all going to die.” He also saw a bright future for our widely scattered downtowns, observing decentralizing trends in energy, food and real estate.
He closed by returning to his theme. “To achieve sustainability economic vitality, identify the authentic and build on it.”