Strong Towns Need Strong Downtowns

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Zachary, Louisiana, is growing. Fast. Over the last two decades, the population has nearly doubled, from approximately 11,000 people in 2020 to more than 19,000 today. Once a rural farming community, Zachary is increasingly becoming a bedroom community for Baton Rouge to the south. With those changes come the inevitable growing pains. Residents and local leaders are navigating important decisions, including controversial decisions about new developments that involve overlapping jurisdictions—city, school, and fire districts, and the East Baton Rouge Parish—and sometimes competing priorities.

Amanda Lanata grew up not far from there, in the town of Saint Francisville. After attending college in Mississippi, she returned to Louisiana. She and her husband Nick settled in Zachary a year and a half ago to be close to their families. Amanda co-owns a small business with her father, and she is the Assistant Director of the Louisiana Main Street program.

Strong Towns members Amanda and Nick have been intentional about meeting local officials, decisionmakers, and other advocates in their chosen city. “What’s nice about working in small town communities like Zachary,” she says, “is that it’s very accessible.” They started watching city council meetings online last year, then began attending in person about six months ago. “At one meeting, you can meet everyone.”

It has been important to the Lanatas to introduce themselves in a non-partisan way. They tell local leaders: “We’re not trying to be political; we’re just trying to improve our community.” That posture has been received well. Even if they may sometimes disagree with council members on how best to make Zachary stronger, I imagine that Amanda and Nick are seen, first and foremost, as allies rather than adversaries.

Amanda also positions herself as a resource through her role with Louisiana Main Street. Since 1984, the Louisiana Main Street has been helping communities revitalize their downtowns and neighborhood commercial districts. Most of the program’s work is focused on towns with 50,000 people or less. There are 36 Louisiana Main Street communities in all.

“At Main Street, we help people save their towns,” Amanda tells me. “We’ve all seen or experienced firsthand towns that are struggling. Businesses are closing. Young people are moving away. Downtown buildings are boarded up and closed down.” 

A struggling downtown bodes poorly for everyone in the community. Downtowns have long been the economic and social hubs of our towns and cities. Value-per-acre analyses show that a walkable downtown—even a neglected one—can be far more financially productive than the ring of big-name big box stores on the outskirts of town. Downtowns are also, historically, where people have come together. One of the questions on the Strong Towns Strength Test goes like this: “If there was a revolution in your town—or a protest, parade, festival, or town emergency—would people instinctively know where to gather?” Even after decades of the Suburban Experiment, which hollowed out so many of our cities, the answer is still the same: downtown.

Amanda talks about downtowns as the economic and social hubs of our towns and cities. They are the heart and soul of our communities, she says. And they are the “front door,” not only for tourists but for new businesses: “If you have developers or investors coming in to scope out your town, where do they go first? They go to your downtown.”

Main Street’s approach to revitalizing downtown is a time-tested framework that’s been implemented in more than 2,000 communities across the United States. Amanda describes the Main Street Approach as a holistic economic development program that’s blended with historic preservation. “We look at the buildings in our downtowns—the wealth that our community has accumulated over generations—and we ask: How can we make this viable for the future? That might be putting a business there or doing upper-story housing.” 

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