In early 1999 and 2000, community leaders in the small town of Parsons, Kan., population 12,000, were busy outlining an economic development revitalization plan. In addition to identifying aging neighborhoods, schools and parks, the Parsons Action Council explored ways to correct a misguided and embarrassing 1960s-era urban renewal effort that had ruined downtown.

A concrete pedestrian mall cut off automobiles from the two key Main Street roads, effectively killing downtown retail traffic. Concrete canopies jutted from two-story buildings, which dated to the early 1900s, that lined the mall. The mall's focal point: a concrete gazebo generally referred to as a “rocket ship-like thing.”

“It was just awful,” recalls Carolyn Kennett, economic development director for Parsons, located in southeast Kansas.

Leaders of the economically diverse town largely blamed the 1960s renewal snafu for forcing downtown businesses to close. By the late 1990s, the downtown retail vacancy rate had hit 80%. But the Parsons Action Council lacked any immediate funding to turn downtown around; it had only mapped out long-range goals.

Then, a powerful F-3 tornado, whose winds can range from 158 to 206 mph, ripped through the heart of Parsons on April 19, 2000, destroying homes and businesses. The twister spared lives. Still, it leveled or damaged some 800 homes and businesses at a cost of $18 million.

Ironically, the tornado also delivered downtown a sense of salvation: By damaging the mall's canopies, gazebo and businesses, the storm inspired town leaders to address Main Street's demise. Ultimately, the tornado cleanup morphed into an $8.7 million redevelopment that transformed the wart into a jewel.

“The tornado became a starting point for the rebirth of downtown,” says Tommey McLarty, now a Parsons commissioner who was mayor when the twister hit. “There's just no comparison. Before the tornado, downtown was like a morgue.”

Gone are the concrete mall, canopies and strangely designed gazebo. In their place are a bona-fide street, brick sidewalks, renovated retail buildings — many of which include second-story housing — a 1,500-seat auditorium, and a revamped Carnegie Library that hosts theatrical productions and art exhibits. The downtown occupancy rate is approximately 95%.

In fact, the National Trust for Historic Preservation last year presented Parsons with a 2006 Great American Main Street Award. Bestowed through the trust's National Trust Main Street Center, the award recognizes successful revitalization efforts that employ historic preservation.

“Our downtown was a big weakness and was on top of our wish-list of things we wanted to improve,” Kennett says. “The tornado created so much damage that we didn't have any choice but to go from a group looking at a long-range plan to a group that needed to act immediately.”

Galvanizing the community

Seizing upon the tornado's silver lining, town leaders established the Parsons Redevelopment Task Force and began assembling the finances to fix downtown. In June 2001, the Kansas Department of Commerce handed over the biggest prize, a $2.16 million community development block grant — still the largest in the state's history — to pay for the pedestrian mall's demolition as well as new sidewalks, benches, street lights and other historically minded streetscape improvements.

The city matched the funding with $365,000 to subsidize apartment construction on the second floors of the Main Street buildings, storefront renovations and construction of two new commercial buildings of 7,000 sq. ft. each, which house a jewelry store and a restaurant. Local banks chipped in with a loan pool of $948,000 at one percentage point below the prime interest rate, which gradually fell from nearly 10% in the summer of 2000 to roughly 4% in mid-2004.

Additionally, Parsons joined the Kansas Main Street Program, which is part of the Kansas Department of Commerce. The initiative provides communities pursuing downtown improvements with technical assistance and funding, says Mary Helmer, assistant state coordinator for Kansas Main Street. In Parsons, for instance, the organization provided $90,000 in low-interest loans to help fund building façade improvements and the construction of second-story housing.

Meanwhile, the Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT) kicked in $250,000 to rebuild and beautify a key intersection at 16th and Main streets. Last year, KDOT also granted Parsons $1.5 million in funds to improve streetscapes and parking lots on blocks adjacent to Main Street.

To help attract businesses downtown, Parsons also offered a small business grant of $1 for every $2 invested — up to a total benefit of $5,000 — if the endeavor created at least one job.

The incentives have helped attract some $5.4 million in private investment. To date, some 70% of downtown Parsons property owners have rehabbed 26 storefront facades and three historic commercial buildings.

Bob Wood, who served as chairman of the redevelopment task force, says the city toyed with the idea of putting in a four-lane Main Street. Eventually, however, it settled on two lanes to accommodate parking.

“We looked at photos of what the downtown looked like in the 1920s and 1930s and tried to copy what was there,” says Wood, a principal with Wood-Dulohery Insurance & Real Estate in Parsons. “We wanted the streetscape to match the era of the buildings.”

Renewed appeal

Dave Mattox, owner of Bleacher Gear, a sports apparel business, bought a two-story, 12,500 sq. ft. downtown building shortly after the tornado and opened his doors on the same day that cars officially returned to Main Street in November 2001. Prior to that he had operated businesses in another part of Parsons, though he'd occasionally thought about moving downtown.

“I probably never would have done it because the pedestrian mall pretty much killed off retail — there was no reason for people to go downtown,” he says. “But when I found out [the town was] going to plow the mall under and put Main Street back in, we bought.”

Mattox declined to say how much he paid for the property, but he estimates that it has doubled in value. Wood, however, suggests that most downtown property values have increased at least $100,000. Before the tornado, downtown properties fetched $50,000, at best, he says.

Like Mattox, many downtown property owners operate retail operations out of their buildings. While others have created second-floor apartments, Mattox split his upper floor into a small apartment for his family's personal use and offices.

In addition to providing financial incentives to attract businesses downtown and renovate storefronts, a group of designers used computer programs to show building owners what the properties would look like with façade improvements. The redevelopment task force provided that service for free.

“A lot of people took advantage of that,” Wood says. “So not only were we having the streetscape done, but the facades of a lot of buildings were done at the same time.”

Main Street network

Parsons leaders credit the Kansas Main Street Program for much of its success. The self-help organization trains communities to promote revitalized downtowns, enhance downtown aesthetics, bolster existing assets and diversify economies.

All told, 22 Kansas towns participate in the program, and communities must commit to staying with it for at least five years, Helmer says. “It takes a long time for communities to get to the point that they need renovation, so it's not going to reverse itself overnight,” she says. “But amazing things can happen if the community buys into the process.”

Like other Main Street organizations around the country, Kansas Main Street operates as a client of the National Trust Main Street Center, a non-profit historic preservation organization in Washington, D.C. that began in 1980.

The Main Street Center provides training, assistance and leadership to clients, which are organized by region, state or city, according to Lauren Adkins, assistant director for technical services at the center.

Communities across the country participate in roughly 1,200 Main Street Center programs. Of those, only a handful have endured natural disasters. Downtown Paso Robles, Calif., for example, went from a district with 33 vacant buildings in the 1980s to full occupancy early this decade. The city of 25,000 was nominated for a 2004 Main Street award just before an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.5 struck.

Despite losing some historic buildings, the Main Street Center still presented Paso Robles with the award, noting the community's commitment to help merchants recover after the quake.

The tiny hamlet of Bonaparte, Iowa, population 450, earned the award in 1995 after floods in 1993 stalled a downtown redevelopment effort there. Since then, the community in southeast Iowa has become a small town tourist destination. Meanwhile, four neighborhoods in New Orleans joined the Louisiana Main Street Program after Hurricane Katrina.

“In places that didn't have a Main Street program, like Parsons and New Orleans, the natural disaster is often a catalyst to get help for businesses that are doubly hurting,” Adkins says. “In places that already have a Main Street program, they actually become a fast clearinghouse for donations.”

Downtown challenges

Still, instituting the Main Street strategy hardly guarantees smooth sailing. The redevelopment task force in Parsons ran into resistance when trying to convince downtown store and property owners to adopt the revitalization plan despite the available incentives, Wood says.

That was particularly true among the few remaining businesses that had stuck it out downtown through the lean years. Some weren't willing to risk investing more money after struggling for so long. “It was a process to work with people and to get them to understand that their property values would increase if they made the improvements,” he adds.

The challenges continue. Two downtown businesses recently closed their doors, increasing the vacancy to three storefronts. Some buildings still need improvements, and four vacant lots interrupt Main Street's continuity.

While the Parsons Community Development Corp. wants to spearhead more commercial development on at least two of the four empty lots, Mattox is skeptical that the city will find users anytime soon. Few if any local businesses can afford to build, particularly those just starting out, he says.

“Big national retailers aren't interested in coming to a town with a small population like Parsons,” Mattox adds. In fact, J.C. Penney operated in downtown Parsons for 82 years, but just as Main Street was getting on its feet again, the store shut its doors in 2003 as part of the company's restructuring early this decade.

The good news: A couple purchased the building a few months later and opened a home furnishings business.

Broader concerns

The town's retail challenges extend beyond the central business district. Fifteen former stores and restaurants sit vacant in town — a few on Main Street but most off the main drag.

In June, the Parsons City Commission approved a low-interest loan program for entrepreneurs who want to open businesses in the buildings. The city also is considering a grant program that would provide business owners with $1 for every $3 invested with a maximum benefit of $5,000.

Kennett and other city leaders hope would-be business owners feed off the energy created by downtown's rebirth and take advantage of the incentives. Plus, they remain bullish on downtown's ability to generate more retail traffic and investment interest, particularly as Parsons remains committed to the Main Street Program guidelines. On a June weekend, the downtown hosted a loft apartment tour and art show.

“Having a strong downtown has made the whole community proud,” says Jane Wilson, executive director of Downtown Parsons Inc., an organization that focuses on continued economic development through historic preservation. “We're striving to keep it strong by continuing to make it better.”

Joe Gose is a Kansas City-based writer.