National organization helps small communities rally, maintain long-standing holiday traditions

Posted at 12:28 PM, Dec 16, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-16 18:29:03-05

GRAFTON, Ohio — While small communities across Ohio and the United States struggle to keep up long-running holiday traditions and vibrant main streets, Main Street America is helping those communities thrive.

The work that the group does might solve a relatively recent problem for the Village of Grafton.

"Quiet, quiet, it's not a destination place," said Grafton Public Library Director Adele Infante. "It's a drive through, that's what Grafton has become."

It's part of the reason Infante says Grafton's Old Fashioned Christmas tradition didn't come together this year. It was an annual event run by the Village's business association for years.

But with a population of just a little more than 6,000 people, a handful of recently-empty businesses, and a fire that destroyed two buildings earlier in the year, it's become much harder to pull together the volunteer effort.

"There just aren't enough storefronts to even have people involved," said Infante. "And you're talking about store owners who are small business people who can't even leave their businesses."

That's why Infante started to look at similar-sized communities nearby to see how they make sure they remain destinations and not drive-throughs.

"It's important because nobody builds small historic downtowns anymore," said Main Street Vermillion Executive Director Marilou Suszko.

That's why she says it's so important for Vermillion to preserve the history it has.

"We have historic light poles down here," said Suszko. "That's not necessarily a priorities for a city that's maybe struggling to keep the infrastructure in shape...It's not an added burden on the city, it's something we take care of ourselves.

Main Street Wellington won the 2019 America's Main Streets Contest under the direction of Executive Director Jenny Arntz.

"[At] slightly under 5,000 people, we do have a very small village government," said Arntz, referring to Wellington.

That's why she harnesses the local volunteers already in the community to help improve the economic vitality of her main street while raising money to put on events that build a sense of community year-round.

"[The events] take a lot of work and when you don't have a concentrated effort or some leadership it just is chaos," said Arntz.

In Wadsworth, Mayor Robin Laubaugh says the city realized a few years ago that it needed a "jolt." That's when they created Main Street Wadsworth, with Adrianne Krauss as the Executive Director.

"There's a tremendous momentum, vibrancy that I'm feeling that it, perhaps, didn't have before," said Laubaugh.

"[Main Street] gives these communities a shot in the arm," said Krauss. "It says, 'Here is an approach that your community can do on your own terms and bring your downtown back.' And it works."

Main Street brings a four-point plan to small communities, focusing on Design, Economic Vitality, Organization, and Promotion, channeling volunteer efforts in those four areas.

"We don't exist without volunteer power," said Suszko. "We are fueled by volunteers."

"Generally, it takes the community coming together," said Main Street America Director of Coordinating Program Services Kathy La Plante. "Something being threatened, the loss of a major festival that means a lot to the community will get people to rally."

Infante says she's started to look into bringing Main Street America to Grafton with the hope that it could reserect Old Fashioned Christmas and revitalize the village.

"I love the town and I'd like to see it be more and I know it can be more," said Infante.