This article can be filed under the “be careful what you wish for” heading. The row between the Franklin Main Street Program and many of the downtown merchants is unfortunate, but predictable. A few years back, merchants were enthusiastic about reconstituting the Main Street Program that had fallen by the wayside. I didn't share that optimism. The downtown merchants were and are, capable of making their own individual and collective decisions for promoting their businesses. Creating a government entity creates an additional barrier to entrepreneurial flexibility. At the time, I argued that if we were having difficulties promoting joint business ventures, why did we think a layer of bureaucracy would solve that problem?
Theoretically, the Main Street Program should be working to improve the business climate and in the process - make itself obsolete. What are the odds of any government program working toward its own demise? Regardless of who is employed by an agency, their prime concern is first to keep their job and then expand upon it if possible. Actually, that is the same definition for a business person. The key difference is that I have to provide goods and services people voluntarily choose instead of playing the political game.
Town and county lodging establishments collect a special tax from guests that in turn is doled out to entities that can persuade the respective TDC and TDA of their “worthiness” in promoting tourism. Forcing room rates to increase, decreases the viability of tourism but offers opportunities for unearned revenue for those with the correct political posturing. A prosperous business can be given a handout while a struggling hotel is mandated extra tax collecting duties under the guise of bringing more visitors to the area. It's hard to think of any business or organization that doesn't, at least tangentially, benefit tourism. So sharpen your pencils and make a proposal. The voluntary organizations, Venture Local and Streets of Franklin took a precarious detour when they entered the political arena via their attempts to grab some of the government loot that the tourism boards allocate. They have encountered a large amount of resistance from local government, in part, since they are competing with government. The Main Street Program is the official government sanctioned and supported organization and it's an embarrassment that its efficiency is called into question, especially by those who offer creative and innovative alternatives for the revitalization of downtown. I encourage my business neighbors to resist the temptation of lining up at the trough for “free” government money because it isn't free and it has more than its share of “strings attached.”
The biggest advantage to a voluntary organization is the fact that it is voluntary. Participation rises or decreases depending on the satisfaction of its members. There is a decentralized, or even chaotic element that allows for the free exchange of ideas with the ensuing problem-solving ability. The literature of the Main Street Program speaks of “everyone working toward the same goal” and the community becoming a “cohesive, cooperative unit.” Doesn't sound very likely or even desirable to me. Ask any two random people what kind of future community they envision and the odds are the definitions will be all over the board in the details of what constitutes a “better” community.
Downtown merchants got what they wished for with a mixed-bag of results at best. However, there is an opportunity to get what you work for, and if the recent tenaciousness demonstrated, especially at Town Board meetings, is any indication, it looks like a good start to giving a jump start to a sluggish downtown economy.