Economic Development Through Diversity and Team-Building

When Mary Helmer Wirth served as the Main Street Director handling downtown development in Emporia, Kansas, she reached out to the downtown’s Hispanic business owners, who made up about a quarter of the district’s business owners. She wanted to find ways for her program to address their needs, get the Hispanic community involved, and counteract the lack of diversity she saw in her program’s board.

Wirth failed to connect with them at scheduled group meetings, and decided to meet with the business owners at the Catholic church where most attended. Even then, speaking to a business owner, she found that the woman would not work with Main Street until she understood the program’s purpose. It was only after the priest said that he knew Wirth and her work that she was invited to speak to a large gathering of Hispanic business owners following a weekday Mass.

“We never would have connected with the Hispanic community if we had not had the opportunity to meet the business owners where they were at,” Wirth said.

Since 2013, she has served as the state coordinator of Main Street Alabama, a group which counts dozens of participating downtown programs across that state. In August, she visited Florence for the Main Street South Carolina director’s retreat to discuss the importance of diversity in economic development programs for communication, outreach, recruitment and partnership-building. 

Wirth pointed to diversity among board members and volunteers as a key aspect of any downtown development organization’s success. Diversity can come in many forms, including age, race, religion, nationality and gender. When setting up an effective board, she said, leaders need to try to include every relevant community, profession and business sector, and all need to have term limits defined by bylaws to further ensure wide representation.

“Think about what your gender and ethnic split is. Is there a variety of professions? Does it look like your district?” she said.

Building a diverse base of volunteers requires fulfilling the motivations people have for volunteering, and Wirth reviewed common motivations. These range from the desire to have influence over programs to the seeking of recognition, an aim to improve the community or a desire to accomplish something.

“The biggest thing for volunteer recruitment: what’s in it for me?” she said. “What do I get out of it? Is it because I want to be in a room with my friends, or I’m passionate about a particular project?” 

Wirth also advocated for careful development of partnerships for economic development programs, including making sure that whomever the program partners with has compatible values and long-term purposes. A partner interested only in a particular fundraising event or a social cause unrelated to the city’s economic development efforts would not be a good partner, nor would a group focused on redeveloping a dilapidated shopping mall on the edge of town be a good fit for downtown development professionals. 

“Mission-match, and do your research,” she said. “A lot of times we’ll be looking at funders or partners and not understand why they don’t want to be involved with us, because we haven’t done research to see what they do.” 

She added that partnering groups and people need to have strengths that are complementary to the development professionals, such as matching people who think about large-scale strategy with those who excel in implementation. 

“You really don’t need another one of you. You really need to bring in other people,” she said. 

Economic development strategies that accurately reflect a city’s diverse residents build lasting and meaningful communities. Intentional outreach and working towards shared prosperity city-wide ensure sustainable economic development practices. 

Main Street South Carolina is a technical assistance program that empowers communities as they revitalize their historic downtowns, encouraging economic development and historic preservation.