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Patrice Frey is President and CEO of the National Main Street Center, where she oversees the Center’s work. Patrice and her team offer programs and guidance on placemaking, local entrepreneurship, facade improvements, crowdfunding and green rehabs to their network of approximately 1,800 members, all in service of revitalizing commercial main streets in both big cities and small towns alike.
Based in Chicago, Illinois, the National Main Street Center is a subsidiary of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and has participated in the renewal of more than 2,000 older commercial districts during its 30-year history. Before joining the National Main Street Center in May 2013, Patrice served as the Director of Sustainability at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, where she oversaw the National Trust’s efforts to promote the reuse and greening of older and historic buildings, including research and policy development work through the Seattle-based Preservation Green Lab.
Patrice worked for several years in the field of community development and urban research before joining the National Trust. She is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s program in historic preservation, where she received a master’s degree in preservation planning and a certificate in real estate design and development through the Penn School of Design and Wharton Business School. Patrice completed her master’s thesis on the application of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards to historic buildings. Patrice also worked for the City of Goleta, California, where she coordinated the acquisition and preservation of coastal open space, as well as a number of community development related programs. Prior to her time in Goleta, Patrice worked for the Brookings Institution’s Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy in Washington, D.C., where she served as the executive assistant to the center director. She received her bachelor’s degree in politics and international relations from Scripps College in Claremont, California.
Insights and Inspirations
- Main streets are the heart of their community.
- They are often the single biggest asset that a neighborhood or small town has.
- And Patrice sees them as entrepreneurial eco-systems.
- Two main streets that Patrice loves are in Edenton, North Carolina and Emporia, Kansas.
Information and Links
- Patrice finds this Roadmap to Recovery a great source of inspiration. She especially loves the community response map at the bottom of the page.
- The National Trust for Historic preservation wants your help finding 1,000 places where women have made their mark. Submit your entry!
- Follow this reddit thread for serious lego and creativity talent. Patrice has been collecting since she was eight and her favorite sets date back to the 1980’s.
Read the podcast transcript here
Eve Picker: [00:00:10] Hi there. Thanks, so much for joining me today for the latest episode of Impact Real Estate Investing.
Eve: [00:00:18] My guest today is Patrice Frey, the president and CEO of the National Main Street Center. Through the Center, Patrice and her team offer programs and guidance on placemaking, local entrepreneurship, facade improvements, crowdfunding and green habs, all in service of revitalizing commercial main streets in both big cities and small towns alike. Their network is very big with eighteen hundred members. If you want to hear why main streets matter, listen into our conversation.
Eve: [00:01:04] Be sure to go to evepicker.com to find out more about Patrice on the show notes page for this episode. And be sure to sign up for my newsletter so you can access information about impact real estate investing and get the latest news about the exciting projects on my crowdfunding platform, Small change.
Eve: [00:01:35] Good morning, Patrice. I’m really looking forward to our conversation today.
Patrice Frey: [00:01:39] Hi, Eve. Thanks for having me. I’m looking forward to it.
Eve: [00:01:42] Good. You have a pretty big job. The National Main Street Center now has eighteen hundred members. Is that right?
Patrice: [00:01:50] It is, yeah. Eighteen hundred members all across the country. Every state in the union, I think, except maybe saving Hawaii.
Eve: [00:01:59] Ok. That’s pretty big. How has it grown under your watch? You’ve been there since 2013, is that right?
Patrice: [00:02:09] Yeah, I have. We launched as a subsidiary of the National Trust in 2013. Before then, we had been a program embedded at the National Trust for Historic Preservation and we have been very fortunate to see a strong membership growth in the last, in the last seven years or so. You know, those 18 hundred members are located all across the country. It’s a really good mix of rural programs and more mid-sized and then quite a bit of representation in some larger cities as well. When we took over in 2013, the team had a real focus on reaching out to folks that had been members in the past and maybe they had lapsed. And we’ve also just put a tremendous focus on developing new content and new resources that have helped to, I think, attract people, attract people to the organization. Yeah. So, it’s been really gratifying. We’re so proud to have such a large and strong membership.
Eve: [00:03:10] So I have to ask, I suppose the main question is why Main Streets?
Patrice: [00:03:16] Well, great question. You know, Main Street is important, I think, in at least two ways. The first is they truly are in the heart of a community and people tend to feel about their town, the way they feel about their downtown, which is to say you’ve got a healthy, vibrant, thriving downtown. I think that’s a real sense of pride, provides a real sense of pride and helps shape the identity, a positive identity for a community. And the reverse is true as well, where if you look at downtown and there’s nothing happening, I think that can help sort of create a sense of distress and incredibly challenged. So, psychologically, we know main streets are extraordinarily important. They’re really important for the quality of life factor, you know, providing restaurants, dynamic shopping experiences, all of that good stuff. But we also know that they’re key to economic competitiveness, right? Because as the economy, we’ve seen these seismic changes in the economy in the last 10, 20 years, we know that people are more mobile and they’re often picking where they live and then choosing a job. And that means for those employers, for local leaders, it’s extraordinarily important that there are high quality places in those communities and downtowns have those qualities in abundance.
Eve: [00:04:40] So that’s what’s going to be my next question. Why is it important to save them? So, one reason is that it offers an option for people. But what if they didn’t have that option? Why is it really important to save main streets?
Patrice: [00:04:54] A couple of reasons come to mind. The first is that often if you’re looking in some of our more stressed areas, cross country, whether that’s in rural or urban areas, other than the people, that commercial quarter is often the single greatest asset that that community has, right? It tends to be affordable, stay flexible, it’s adaptable, it’s walkable and we know more and more people are really appreciating the benefits of walkability. So, it really is an approach to asset based economic development that leverages what you already have. The other thing is main streets, particularly those, you know, those truly that were built like before the 1950s, you have just such a beautiful sense of character. They really reflect the local culture. They were built in a human scale. They’re super, and I’ve already talked about adaptability, but that is extremely important, 5the fact that you can adapt these places, you know, you can do like light manufacturing, you can do a restaurant, you can do standard office. You can, you know, turn upstairs into apartments or condos. So, it’s important and for many communities, this is the single biggest asset they’ve got.
Eve: [00:06:13] Yeah, I always find when I go to a small town or borough with a charming main street, I feel very comfortable with the scale. It’s kind of very easy to relate to, which is a bit of a relief sometimes, I think.
Patrice: [00:06:28] It is, it is. And it’s so funny because, you know, with Covid I’ve been spending a lot of time at home and I have a four-year-old son and we had checked out a book from the library on Roman design, Roman construction. And it’s just, you know, looking at the sketches was just reminded that, you know, this is an urban form that has existed for millennia. And I think it’s existed for a reason. It’s certainly existed for purposes of transacting commerce, but it’s also been a place that people go to connect with each other. And I think Covid is making us realize how much we appreciate having places to go.
Eve: [00:07:09] Yeah, and how much we miss it, right?
Patrice: [00:07:11] Yeah.
Eve: [00:07:12] So a hard question. How do we bring equity to small towns? This is the other pandemic, right?
Patrice: [00:07:21] Yeah, no, no, no. And yes, equally as concerning, if not more so. I think the first thing is acknowledging the problem for what it is and speaking openly about it. You know, in many communities, there is a legacy of African Americans being excluded that dates back to Jim Crow where African Americans were really only allowed downtown on certain days, during certain times to complete their shopping. So, I think some of it is really just acknowledging that in many ways main streets were, just have extraordinary histories of exclusion. And my own thinking is you only fix that by a truly intensive community engagement process where you are committed to reaching audiences and meeting members that you haven’t had traditionally part of downtown and then programming in a way in which those communities, particularly African-American community, feels supported. We, at the Center, do a lot of work on entrepreneurial ecosystems, and we’re taking a fresh look at that in terms of really understanding and helping communities embed within their work practices that really create for more diverse representation downtown.
Eve: [00:08:53] Yeah, I think exciting time about this moment is everyone I am talking to is really thinking about this issue very constructively. And I’m not sure that’s ever happened before. It’s going to be really wonderful to see, you know, what a year of thinking brings, right?
Patrice: [00:09:11] Yeah, it will. And I think now we’ve got to do the work, right? It’s getting past the talking and acknowledging that, yeah, that we have a problem. And, you know, we’re certainly, I personally am really committed to it, and then the organization, Main Street America, are very committed to it as well. You know, I think we’re going to have more tools and resources, support our communities in this conversation in the coming months and I would also say, you know, we’re eager to intensively engage in places where they’re ready to have this conversation and, you know, they want to make some changes.
Eve: [00:09:50] Yeah. Yeah. What are the primary activities of the Main Street Center? How do you help communities?
Patrice: [00:09:57] So, we’re the leading national revitalization organization nationally. So that means we can provide training, technical assistance, grants, networking opportunities. All of that good stuff. But we’re probably best known for something called the Main Street approach, or the four point approach, which is a revitalization strategy that’s been used now by about 2000 communities to help them really identify their values, identify their vision for downtown, and then program in a way to really make that happen. It’s a very comprehensive approach. A lot of times what we see in economic development is, you know, kind of the one-shot wonder where you build the stadium, or you build the museum or a baseball park, and expect that that will automatically transform an area. That is very rarely the case. Instead, what we know makes a big change, big differences, is small steps, incremental change over time in a way that really takes into consideration the design of the place, economic vitality, the strategies, how you’re, what kind of place you’re actually trying to create and how you are attractor helping those businesses. And of course, promoting it, marketing, marketing it, all that good stuff.
Eve: [00:11:19] Right now, what communities have you been working on?
Patrice: [00:11:24] Well, we do a lot of work in communities. Up until Covid, right?
Eve: [00:11:28] Yes. Yeah, yeah.
Patrice: [00:11:29] We have our field services team that I think was in 200 communities…
Eve: [00:11:35] You know, Covid19, I’m just astonished at the trickle-down effect. Every time I talk to someone there’s another impact I haven’t thought about.
Patrice: [00:11:45] Yeah, yeah. So, our field services typically visits, will visit at least 200 communities a year. And we have transitioned a lot of those services online. But particularly when you’re talking about place, it’s really tough work to do. Place and relationship building. It’s really tough to do.
Eve: [00:12:11] Impossible remotely, right?
Patrice: [00:12:13] I won’t say it’s all impossible. I will say a lot of it is extremely difficult. Yeah.
Eve: [00:12:19] Yeah. I mean, you can only go so far.
Patrice: [00:12:22] Yeah. Exactly. So, you know, it’s hard for me to pick a place where we’re doing work, but, we’re in so many places, but Ohio, we’re doing some really exciting work there in a few of the heavily coal-impacted areas in terms of supporting the development of entrepreneurial ecosystems in that place. And I would say that work is almost certainly shifting off, because of Covid, to be focused on recovery as well.
Eve: [00:12:54] I suppose the question is, you know, how are you shifting your thinking because of this pandemic?
Patrice: [00:13:01] Well, yeah. So, I actually have great hope for main streets on the other side of all of this. I think the reason I’m so hopeful is because I think they, you know, like we talked about, they’re so adaptable. And even though I think we’re going to see the marketplace change a little bit, I think the space to sort of inherently, you know, we can do it, right Eve?
Eve: [00:13:33] Well, you know, I think main streets have a future because I think there are going to be a lot of people who want the calm, peace and space in places that have small main streets. Unfortunately, I think we’re going to go through a period of time where downtowns in larger cities might be scary for some people. And that could be to the advantage of smaller communities.
Patrice: [00:13:59] Well, I think that’s right. And I think we are also seeing where so many of our big cities were reaching peak unaffordability.
Eve: [00:14:07] Oh, yeah, there that too.
Patrice: [00:14:09] Yeah, that combined with the dynamic of, you know, people wanting a little bit more space and realizing that they can work from anywhere. I do think that bodes well for rural towns. I just feel like Americans have reconnected with the value of walkability in recent years. And, you know, I think that persists on the other side of this as well. Even though the economic impacts are going to be severe, we’re going to have vacancies, storefront vacancies that we’re, you know, going to be challenged by, overall, I think, we come out for the better.
Eve: [00:14:44] Yeah. So, storefront vacancies were happening before the pandemic, right? Because retail was really shifting dramatically.
Patrice: [00:14:52] Yeah. Because we’re so massively overbuilt in terms of commercial space especially.
Eve: [00:14:57] And I think because retail activities have changed so much in the last few years.
Patrice: [00:15:02] Absolutely.
Eve: [00:15:02] So, what does that mean for main streets? I mean, hasn’t it changed so much in small places? I mean, I like having my groceries delivered from Whole Foods or Costco or somewhere, but I don’t know if that’s possible in a small town, so…
Patrice: [00:15:17] Yeah, yeah. From what I’ve seen, probably not. I guess maybe there have been some changes. Maybe there will be some changes. We are seeing where, particularly larger retailer vacancies, were really starting to be a problem. My impression is that those tended to be in places, maybe central business district downtown, the malls, the lifestyle centers, et cetera. But I don’t tend to see those national retailers concentrated quite so heavily on our main streets, at least in the type of communities that we’re working with. So, I’m a little bit, you know, less concerned about that dynamic there, because we were seeing, people were really being extraordinarily creative in creating an experience at customers. And whether that was a restaurant or retail. Yeah. And so, again, I think, you know, none of the fundamentals have changed. And so, I see that continuing on the other side.
Eve: [00:16:18] Yeah. So, it’s maybe a shift towards slightly different retail types. Which is kind of exciting to think about.
Patrice: [00:16:26] Yes, it is, it is. I mean, I don’t know about you, but I, I am sick of like trying to online shop for clothes.
Eve: [00:16:34] Oh, I hate it.
Patrice: [00:16:36] I want somewhere I can look at them, you know, like touch them, feel them, like, you know that sort of human want, you know. I think that it’s real and doesn’t go away.
Eve: [00:16:48] So, I’d love to hear about, like, an accomplishment you’re really proud of or a project that you thought sort of exemplified what you do at the Main Street Center, something that’s, that you love.
Patrice: [00:17:01] Yeah. Well, I love that you ask that question, thank you. We are working on an advocacy campaign right now to ask for congressional support for, I mean through organizations, and so, I have been so heartened and just thrilled to see the way that our network has really rallied behind this cause. Unfortunately, state and local Main Street Programs are in peril. We know fiscal budgets, which are a big source of funding for these programs, are badly endangered. And so, we have been rallying and approaching Congress about what sounds like a large number to me, but I’m told is actually a small number. We’ve been rallying around a 100 million dollar ask to ensure that we can sustain these main street programs when small businesses need them most. You know, these Main Street Programs, the leaders of these programs are the folks on the ground who are helping the small businesses with their PPP application or they’re directing them to local community foundations for grants or making sure they understand what might be available through the state. They’re also sometimes in the room negotiating with landlords for rent forgiveness or forbearance. In this moment, what I’m most excited about, most proud of, is the way that folks have rallied to Main Street’s defence. And I’m pleased that Congress seems to be listening. We have a long way to go yet, but I’m feeling good about it.
Eve: [00:18:44] Awesome, that sounds fantastic. So, I’m just shifting a little bit to you. What’s your background and how did you, what led you to this role?
Patrice: [00:18:54] Well, it was a meandering path. So
Eve: [00:18:57] They’re always the good ones.
Patrice: [00:19:00] Well, you know, some people, some people know. Like my husband, you know, knew in third grade what he wanted to do and he’s doing it today. So, I, to make a long story short, I ended up at Brookings Institution. That was the Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy at that point. And right after, soon after college, because I just love cities and, you know, I was sort of leaning towards the idea of a planning degree. And then I ended up on a tour in downtown Tacoma, Washington, with my dad. And, you know, we had this tour guide. Michael Sullivan, very well known locally, who captured my ardent attention. He just took us down, through downtown, telling the stories of the buildings. And I thought, OK, well, this is what I want to do. So, from there I, because I had really been interested in policy and really interested in architecture, and so I figured, OK, this is preservation is really a melding of those two things. So, from there, I took my time, but I ended up in grad school at Penn for preservation in the Design School. And I did my thesis actually on the greening of older historic buildings and ended up at the National Trust working as their research director. And then it’s it was a lot, I had so much fun in that job working on sustainability and older buildings. And then Main Street came along and I thought, well, you know, there are a lot of parallels between, a lot of threads, between sustainability and main streets. And so, I threw my name in the hat and here I am.
Eve: [00:20:50] That’s fabulous. So, you get to run this really pretty unique organization.
Patrice: [00:20:56] I love it.
Eve: [00:20:57] And spend time on main streets.
Patrice: [00:20:59] When times are normal, I get to see some of the most beautiful, most special places that I think people often never see. So, I am really grateful for that.
Eve: [00:21:11] So what’s one of the most beautiful, most special places you’ve seen?
Patrice: [00:21:17] So, a couple come to mind immediately. One is Emporia, Kansas. And I wouldn’t say it’s like beautiful in the way that, you know, you might think about a landscape or something. But it’s a city of, I think it’s twenty-five thousand, it’s near nothing, right, which is to say, I think Kansas City is a good two and a half, three hours away. And they have done such an extraordinary job of nurturing entrepreneurship there and have had just like success story after success story. I want to say that the Main Street Program has helped to support something like 70 or 80 new business starts there. They will allow good stuff with housing downtown. Just extraordinarily dynamic leadership. Great community. Yeah, just, just…
Eve: [00:22:11] In an unexpected place, right?
Patrice: [00:22:13] Yeah. Yeah. And then, you know, the other thing that I realize is, well the other, to one of the other key lessons I’ve learned, it’s from place called Edenton, North Carolina, and it’s an absolutely charming downtown. But sometimes with the preservation lens you can look at a place and say like, “oh, that facade isn’t”, you know, “that facade isn’t quite right”, “those windows…”, etc., etc.. And there’s a lot of what I would describe as imperfect preservation there, but I say that with no judgment. The thing I realized is, you know, it’s really not about the way it looks, it’s about what’s happening at 2:00 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon, which is: Is this vibrant? Are people using this space? Are they getting what they need? And, you know, Edenton is absolutely just incredible.
Eve: [00:23:06] Oh, I’m going to have to put them on my bucket list.
Patrice: [00:23:08] Yeah, it is right on the water. It’s a beautiful, beautiful place. I’m probably getting my history wrong, but I think it was very briefly the capital of North Carolina.
Eve: [00:23:18] Fabulous. So, do you think socially responsible real estate is necessary in today’s development landscape?
Patrice: [00:23:26] I think it’s absolutely essential. I’m pleased to see that, you know, there is a bit more attention on it than perhaps in the past. My two big concerns when it comes to real estate are, well really three, building in a way that truly supports the community, is in line with the community’s vision. The second is building with time in mind. Meaning, I think so much of what gets constructed today is just utter crap.
Eve: [00:23:57] Oh, yeah, I agree.
Patrice: [00:23:58] And it will, it will not stand the stand the test of time either design wise or, you know, the fundamentals, the physical structures are so poorly constructed. And then the third thing that is, again, just kind of how I look at the world, is the reuse factor. You know, I tend to really gravitate to projects, you know appreciate projects, that are making use of an old building in some form or some fashion because they, the research I did early on in my career regarding the carbon impacts associated with new construction, was kind of formative in my thinking about this. I mean, there are just massive, massive impacts associated with constructing new buildings and tearing down old ones. And it’s just critically important that we’re giving that our full attention as we’re designing these places.
Eve: [00:24:52] Yeah, and, you know, I’ve done a lot of reuse projects and I find people really love the idea that they’re living in or occupying something that has a history. So, it’s a shame to eradicate it. It’s useful today.
Patrice: [00:25:09] Yeah. And Eve, you are a hero, a true champion among the development community for the work you’ve done on.
Eve: [00:25:19] Oh, thank you.
Patrice: [00:25:19] Yeah, and reuse. I think you’re right. I mean, I do think there’s an element of the human psyche that finds it very important to connect to elements of the past. And that’s what building reuse allows us to do. I mean, unfortunately, so much of what is being constructed today, you know, has so little value that, yeah, it’s hard to imagine 50 years from now that people are going to be fighting to save those places.
Eve: [00:25:46] Yes. Yep. Shifting gears again, what community engagement tools have you seen that have worked best? I know you talked about going further with them in the future, but I’m just wondering what works?
Patrice: [00:26:02] Yeah. So, I mean, there’s certainly the you hold a meeting and you see who shows up and you create the space for them to, for everyone to have a voice and to talk. And that’s very important. But there are two engagement tools in particular that we’ve had some success within recent years. One are surveys. I mean, obviously, that’s a little bit different and limited because you’re not having a dynamic conversation with someone. But that can be extraordinarily helpful in reaching a larger community group about and engaging them in terms of how they want to see their downtown evolve. And the second, and this is really important, is going to where they are, right? So, which is to say, if you have groups that just tend to not engage downtown and yet, you know, there’s a festival happening or there’s some sort of gathering, churches, what have you. That can be a great place to go and engage directly, you know, hand somebody a survey and talk to them at the same time. That’s been extraordinarily valuable.
Eve: [00:27:04] Oh, interesting. And then I have to ask this question. Do you think equity crowdfunding can play a role in building main streets? I’m hoping the answer is yes.
Patrice: [00:27:15] Money? Absolutely. Absolutely. And I think that crowdfunding, is probably the most exciting thing I’ve seen come along and real estate, I’d say full stop. Precisely because I think it creates a foundation for better community engagement, literally community buy-in.
Eve: [00:27:35] Yes. Yeah, that’s the important bit. Yeah.
Patrice: [00:27:37] Yeah. And that is, you know, that’s what it’s all about.
Eve: [00:27:42] Yeah, so they get to vote with their dollars. I mean, they also get to see the upside.
Patrice: [00:27:49] They do. They do. Yeah.
Eve: [00:27:51] Yeah. That’s what I love about it. So final question, what’s next for the Center and what’s next for you if you’re looking five years ahead, like what are the big goals?
Patrice: [00:28:03] Oh boy, I can answer the one for the Center pretty easily.
Eve: [00:28:07] Well, the 100 million for sure, right. That’s a really big goal.
Patrice: [00:28:10] After we get our 100 million and I go on vacation…I will not go on vacation. In terms of what’s next for the Center it is a renewed focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. You know, we’ve recently been doing some strategic planning that we’ve completely, I think, rethought our strategic plan to be aligned with goals of enhancing equity on main streets. I don’t want to be Pollyanna-ish about this and say, you know, we’re going to be able to snap our fingers and massive changes overnight but I do think we’re going to focus on creating tools and partnerships that will really support communities who want to have this conversation, are committed to creating a more diverse representation downtown. So, you’re going to see more resources come from the Center focused on the diversity issue. You know, the five-year question, Eve, is a really hard one because I’m spending all the time with Main Street. So, every year sort of presents a new challenge and you never know what’s coming down the road for you. I hope that, you know, five years from now, we’ve got double the membership and that we honestly have really engaged on the diversity issue in a really meaningful way.
Eve: [00:29:38] Yeah, I think that’s a good goal. And I hope there’s quite a few more main streets with less vacant storefronts.
Patrice: [00:29:45] That’s a good hope as well.
Eve: [00:29:48] Well, thank you very much for talking to me today. And I’m really looking forward to seeing what else, what else happens.
Patrice: [00:29:54] Thanks Eve, great to talk to you as well.
Eve: [00:30:08] That was Patrice Frey, the president and CEO of The National Main Street Center. Patrice impressed on me the importance of main streets. These commercial corridors are often the single biggest asset that a neighborhood or small town has. They are the center of commercial activity, often full of well-built, historic buildings, and they are the heart of their community. It’s important that they thrive. It’s important that they are saved and reused in ways that befit the way we live today.
Eve: [00:30:47] You can find out more about impact real estate investing and access the show notes for today’s episode at my website, evepicker.com. While you’re there, sign up for my newsletter to find out more about how to make money in real estate while building better cities.
Eve: [00:31:04] Thank you so much for spending your time with me today. And thank you, Patrice, for sharing your thoughts with me. We’ll talk again soon but for now, this is Eve Picker signing off to go make some change.
Image by Cameron Blaylock.