A mix of business owners, property holders and motivated citizens gathered in the Warrenton High School Commons Monday evening to learn how they could bring new life to Warrenton’s Main Street area.
The focus of the gathering was the first public forum with a representative of Missouri Main Street Connection, a nonprofit economic development organization focused on historical downtown districts. Main Street Connection is partnering with the Warrenton Downtown Association, which organized the town hall-style gathering March 11.
Some of the people at the gathering said they were simply curious, but most said they wanted to know what they could do to return Main Street to its better days. Cindy Burke, who owns an accounting and financial planning office on Main Street, said a previous revitalization in the early 2000s temporarily brought the area out of a slump, but she wants to see long-term change.
“Now’s the time. We’ve got a lot of youth and energy downtown right now, and I want to try to build on it,” Burke commented during the discussion.
Keith Winge with Main Street Connection presented a method the organization has developed over decades of revitalization projects for restoring commercial activity to historical areas. He said preserving the character of older buildings is part of what makes downtown areas a unique attraction.
There are a number of challenges downtown businesses will have to meet. Developing a plan for improving sometimes run-down buildings, finding tenants with unique attractions to fill those spaces, and contending with changes to commerce brought about by the internet are just some of them. But Winge said the effort is worth it, because a healthy downtown spreads its benefits to the rest of the community.
“Downtown businesses tend to support their community much (more) than chains,” Winge said, explaining that those businesses not only contribute to local community programs, but can also become a center for art and culture, and an attraction for people from outside the area.
Warrenton Mayor Eric Schleuter said the city government is dedicated to partnering with downtown businesses to spur renewal and rehabilitation. He complimented the Warrenton Downtown Association on festivals and activities the group has organized on Main Street, but Schleuter said it falls on the entire community to support local entrepreneurs and employers.
“We need to start supporting our local businesses. All of them, not just the big ones, but the small ones too,” Schleuter said. “We need to be there, make the purchases to keep them thriving.”
The gathering Monday night culminated with group sessions in which the attendees developed a list of priorities for how downtown Warrenton could attract visitors and renew commercial activity. Many of the suggestions involved greater collaboration between businesses and trade groups such as the Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce.
Among the suggestions were organized marketing of vacant spaces to draw in new entrepreneurs, cleanup and beautification to improve the look of the buildings and bring plant life back, and better public communication to make visitors aware of the downtown area.