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Growing up, Mary Helmer’s mother had a mantra: “Leave it better than you found it.” Mary works hard to do exactly that in her role as President and State Coordinator at Main Street Alabama. “Main Street Alabama is an organization that works with cities and neighborhood commercial districts to revitalize their downtown and neighborhood areas,” Mary says.

A nonprofit organization, Main Street Alabama builds on the history, culture and unique attributes of neighborhoods and cities to cultivate sustainable change. This is done through public-private partnerships and community engagement, as well as strategies that create jobs, spark new investment, attract visitors and spur growth. “I’ve been doing this 20+ years,” says Mary, who did similar work in her home state of Kansas before coming to Birmingham seven years ago. “It’s a great opportunity to help a community with the changes in their district over time. It’s very satisfying. It’s a great job.”

Main Street Alabama, which began in 2009 and was incorporated in 2010, follows a 30-year-old model for community revitalization that has seen great success nationwide. The organization works with communities across the state, helping the districts in four main areas — organization, promotion, design, and economic vitality. These four focal points of the Main Street approach correspond with the four forces of real estate value: social, political, physical, and economic.

When Main Street Alabama sets out to help a community, the recommendations are backed by research that includes roundtable discussions, community meetings and visits with local businesses. “We help [communities] set up goals and give them tools they need to move forward,” Mary says. In Birmingham, for example, Main Street Alabama works with the Historic Fourth Avenue Business District to spur its revitalization. The organization conducts a market analysis to help businesses in the area thrive. Main Street Alabama also works closely with REV Birmingham and Urban Impact to serve Magic City businesses.

Governor Kay Ivey names Historic Fourth Avenue District a designated community of Main Street Alabama

Mary Helmer (second on the right) and others stand with Governor Kay Ivey during a proclamation signing naming Birmingham’s Historic Fourth Avenue Business District a designated community of Main Street Alabama.

RELATED: Reviving Fourth Avenue: Past, Present & Future

Coping with COVID

This year, much of Main Street Alabama’s work has focused on helping Alabama’s small businesses weather the economic impact of COVID-19. “They’re struggling in this,” Mary says. Main Street Alabama offers on-demand webinars to teach businesses how to sell online and maximize social media.

“Whereas in some cases Instagram may be perfect for a business, Twitter may be better for another business,” Mary explains. At reopenmainstreet.com, businesses can get tips on how to make customers comfortable enough to visit their storefronts as they reopen their doors. Mary and her team recently helped 25 businesses in Jasper reset their storefronts and pivot their business models to adapt to the pandemic and be successful now and in the future. Main Street Alabama hopes to bring similar efforts to other areas across the state.

Making a Difference

Trisha Black works as a field services specialist for Main Street Alabama. She helps Main Street communities better understand the Main Street four-point approach and helps train board members, committees and volunteers. She also assists districts with their strategic plans, marketing and more.

Trisha grew up in small Alabama towns, so for her, this work is personal. “In the four years that I’ve worked with Main Street Alabama, I have visited nearly 60 communities, several that remind me of the Alabama towns that I’ve lived in,” she says. “The people are good people and love their communities, many having lived there all their lives or returning to raise their families.”

RELATED: Meet Hand in Paw’s Ashley Foster: FACES of Birmingham

Trisha says that one thing her job has taught her is that we all have the power to make a difference in our communities. “When I see momentum, it’s when those individuals decide to roll up their sleeves and get involved in making their community better,” she says. “From decorating the district for the holidays to renovating historic downtown buildings to drawing new businesses to the district, it’s that private investment that makes the difference and further builds community pride in the place they call home.”

Woodlawn Street Market

The Woodlawn Street Market is a revitalization effort by the Woodlawn Business Association and REV Birmingham, an organization Main Street Alabama works with closely. The market features clothing, fresh produce, jewelry and art from local vendors.

Mary wants you to do your part, too. One of the best ways you can help, she says, is to shop at local businesses. You can also buy a license plate for your car to let everyone know that you do. The Shop Local Support Small Business tag will be produced if at least 1,000 people complete an online application and pay a $50 fee by July 31, 2021. Proceeds from the sales fund small business workshops and grants.

Main Street Alabama also offers a variety of volunteer opportunities. “I think if we all looked at things with the goal of leaving things better than we found them,” Mary says, “you can make a big difference across your neighborhood, across your district and across your state.”

Learn more about Main Street Alabama at MainStreetAlabama.org. All images courtesy of Main Street Alabama.

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