What Matters to Main Street?

Hamilton College students hit the road to help the village of Herkimer, N.Y., identify strategies to overcome trending economic woes.

July 23, 2015 |

Hamilton College Public Policy majors Peter Harrison and Caroline Glover walk down Main Street in Herkimer, NY with their professor, Gary Wyckoff. Photo by Nancy L. Ford.<\/p>"

Editor's note: Maureen Nolan is the College Writer for Hamilton College in Clinton, NY. This article originally appeared in the Hamilton Alumni Review - Spring 2015 issue, and has been reposted with permission from the author. The Rural Schools Collaborative believes this study shows the value of partnerships between higher education and small towns. We are also pleased that the Hamilton students' findings support our conviction that schools are integral to economic development in rural regions.

By the shortest route, it’s about 24 miles from College Hill to the village of Herkimer, N.Y., an easy road trip even in a terminal Honda Civic or voracious old SUV. For decades, Herkimer’s Main Street has been on a long, sad slide. Nearly six years ago, as store after restaurant after watering hole continued to shrivel and die, Herkimer native Scott Petucci and a half-dozen or so civic-minded volunteers formed a committee to revitalize the commercial backbone of their village. “When I was growing up, we had a clothing store, an optometrist, the General Herkimer Hotel where everybody went for proms and weddings,” says Petucci, president of the Herkimer Now revitalization committee. He and his wife settled into a house on North Main Street and have a first-hand view of the village’s continuing decline.

The grassroots Herkimer Now has no staff, operating budget or office. It meets in the Frank J. Basloe Library. When members want to throw a community event, they sell Krispy Kreme donuts or hold some other fundraiser to pay for it. Besides sponsoring activities, the organization is looking for bigger-picture answers, which is what led it to Gary Wyckoff, Hamilton government professor and director of the Public Policy Program.

When Wyckoff, who has a doctorate in economics from the University of Michigan, came to Hamilton from Indiana University in 1991, he brought an idea with him: Indiana graduate students had conducted public policy research projects for outside entities, and Wyckoff wanted to give undergrads a shot at that experience. For more than 20 years, as part of their coursework, Hamilton public policy majors have had the chance to conduct analyses for municipalities, government agencies and various nonprofit organizations. They provide the service for free. Students have worked with the New York State Department of State and other permutations of state government, the Oneida County Department of Mental Health and the city of Rome, to name a few of the clients. Alumni rank the real-world work near or at the top of their academic experiences at Hamilton.

Such was the case for Brendan Rafalski ’11, now an analyst at Barrow Street Capital, an investment management firm. As seniors, he and Donovan Flint ’11 contributed to a Cornell Cooperative Extension Service project on reviving hops farming in New York. “Professor Wyckoff was great because he gave you a lot of freedom to go out and do projects that interested you,” Rafalski says. “I never really had an experience like that, where you are on your own, and you’re just expected to show up to your class and have all your research in order every week.”

On its quest to revive Main Street, Herkimer Now heard about Wyckoff and his public policy students from a local economic development agency. The committee submitted more than one proposal to Wyckoff’s program before it found a champion. Wyckoff’s approach is to let students select their own senior projects. “The most important thing is that students are engaged in it. So what I do is give them a whole bunch of ideas and say, ‘What tickles your fancy? What’s interesting?’ And so they get some ideas that I come up with, they get some ideas agencies come up with, they get ideas they come up with,” Wyckoff says. This fall, Herkimer Now found two friends on the Hill: seniors Peter Harrison and Caroline Glover.

One evening they trekked to Herkimer to pitch a proposal to the committee during a meeting at the library at 245 N. Main Street. As the students got a look at Herkimer, the need was obvious. “They have a lot of work to do, and hopefully this will help them,” Harrison says. If Petucci were grading the students’ work, he likely would have given the two an A that first night. “They were great at our meeting. They listened; they presented what their objectives were. They were fantastic,” Petucci recalls. He was impressed by their aggressive deadline. He could thank the academic calendar for that.

Herkimer Now wanted a study that examined factors that make a main street hum. The committee had hypotheses about what mattered most — among them, the percentage of tax-exempt properties, the property-tax rate and the proximity to a correctional facility or welfare office. Glover and Harrison went to work identifying which specific factors would have the most significant impact on a town’s success. They came up with two definitions for success: occupancy rate, meaning storefronts that are occupied rather than empty, and the number of occupied storefronts per capita.

Glover, from Old Greenwich, Conn., and Harrison, from Rumson, N.J., immersed themselves in the nitty-gritty of dozens of rural communities in Central New York. They looked at communities with populations that ranged from 369 to 8,304. As it turned out, the student researchers discovered that literature about main streets is scarce and information about rural main streets even harder to come by. They wanted to include 90 communities in their regression analyses, and they needed local officials to supply them with data.

Glover and Harrison figured they could entice the locals to help by offering to provide them with a copy of their finished report. They emailed their surveys and waited for the flood of responses. They were in for a surprise — one of many. “We thought there was going to be a really high response rate, and that all these officials would be eagerly awaiting an answer (from us),” Harrison says. They received maybe 12 replies.

Undaunted, they changed their strategy and started calling local officials. That didn’t work either. “So we just got in our cars,” Glover says. They split up, and, during a few days of short road trips, they hit roughly 25 communities each to count main street storefronts and vacancies. They relied on digital directions and low speeds as they navigated through Fabius, Boonville, Earlville and other small towns. They did most of the work from their cars, frequently in the dark after class or squash practice. Glover drove an ailing 1995 Honda Civic, which eventually croaked. Harrison was behind the wheel of his mom’s old Lexus SUV, a gas-guzzler. In the end, their sample consisted of 64 communities, not the 90 they were shooting for.

Finally, data in hand, they did their first regression and found nothing significant. After making some changes in how they coded the variables and adding some new ones, they eventually came up with useful results, some of which made them blink. They used economic, geographic and community-related variables, for instance the number of vacant storefronts, whether the community houses the county seat, the proximity to a public school, correctional institute or hospital, tax base per capita and whether the community is a tourist destination. They found four economic and three geographic variables that were significant to main street success.

Most important? They say having a public school within a half-mile of a main street had the greatest positive impact for occupancy rate. That made sense to them; a school brings in parents and other visitors. Tax-base per capita had a very significant impact on occupied storefronts per capita. Their data suggest that, for the average community in their sample, a $10 per capita increase in the tax base would result in a gain of approximately 1.2 storefronts.

They also expected that a hospital would have an impact, and it did, but it wasn’t a favorable one. Their regression showed that main streets within three miles of a hospital have fewer storefronts per capita. They suspect this may be because hospitals are self-contained. Employees and visitors tend not to stray off-site to dine or shop.

Another surprise: Glover and Harrison found that when median household income increases, there’s actually a decrease in occupied storefronts per capita. They suggest that as people get wealthier, they may seek luxury goods that can’t be found in shops on small-town main streets and look for them elsewhere. Tourism, on the other hand, has a positive impact on the number of occupied storefronts, as one might expect.

Another finding that contradicted one of the students’ hypotheses: A 1 percent increase in the unemployment rate actually increases the occupancy rate. The student researchers were surprised, too, by some of the variables that didn’t have a significant impact on main street success. That included the existence of a main street steering committee (sorry Herkimer Now), the property-tax rate and the proximity of a college. Prisons within three miles of a main street had only a small impact, and it was negative, which the students expected.

Wyckoff says the students’ data are strong enough to show what drives main street success. He considers their work to be of note for several reasons. One, it explored relatively unturned ground because the literature is so scant, despite the fact that ailing main streets are a chronic concern throughout the country. Communities appear to be making decisions about ways to enhance the success of their main streets based on hunches rather than data. “It’s mind boggling,” Wyckoff says. He was also impressed by the students’ unexpected findings about what helps or hinders main streets, in particular schools, hospitals and prisons. “Those seem to me really interesting and novel findings,” the professor says.

Tina Cirelli, also of Herkimer Now, found the students’ study to be of interest, too, and planned to share the document with the village board. Herkimer Now is working with the village to establish a state “historic corridor” and to offer tax incentives to prospective main street property owners. “The village board has also been asked by our county legislators to support the building of a new jail in Herkimer, and the results of the study include a section on how prisons impact main streets, so this information is very pertinent to Herkimer and the issues we are currently facing,” Cirelli says.

Petucci is especially interested in the impact of a school, the value of a steering committee, how a prison would affect the town and tax burden. “The impact of tourism, which we do not capitalize on enough, is also a place to focus,” he says.

In the conclusion of their study, the students were frank about the limitations of their findings. They’d wanted a bigger sample and would have liked to include more variables but didn’t have the time. Maybe future public policy majors will take up where they left off, they suggest. As for their own futures, Harrison is considering a career in commercial real estate and real estate investment. He thinks the data-set crunching, deadline performance and teamwork he put in on the Herkimer project will be good talking points during job interviews. By spring, Glover had landed a job as a management consultant with IBM. “I pursued this consulting role largely because of my experience working with Peter and Professor Wyckoff,” she says, “and I’m pretty sure my senior project is a huge reason they hired me.”

Hamilton College is a small, liberal-arts school located in upstate New York. To learn more about the college's Public Policy Program, check out their website.

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