Making and Marketing Place in American Small Towns

Authors: Christopher Willer*, Kent State University
Topics: Urban Geography, Urban and Regional Planning, Cultural Geography
Keywords: small towns, downtown, Main Street Program, place making, place marketing
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/6/2020
Start / End Time: 4:40 PM / 5:55 PM
Room: Plaza Court 7, Sheraton, Concourse Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


American small towns are an important yet understudied historical feature on America’s urban landscape. Having lost their prominence in the 1960s and in subsequent decades due to the rise of shopping malls and big box stores, key actors and institutions have renewed interest in small towns and embedding local character back into American culture, ultimately fueling neolocalism. In this paper, I explore how the National Main Street Program – consisting of over 1,000 communities – and their community managers create and market a sense of place in small-town downtowns. Emerging in 1977, the National Main Street Center (NMSC) has ample accolades and widespread usage; however, little empirical research investigates the prescriptive program as a place-making institution. In this paper, I explore place-making and place-marketing processes within the geographic context of small-town Main Street communities. Using a national survey and semi-structured interviews, I examine how local managers create place and market their downtowns. I hypothesize that the place-marketing and promotion of traditional downtowns is neither ‘unique’ nor ‘authentic,’ but exudes a sense of placelessness, despite underlying efforts and goals to create both a unique sense of place on a local level.

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