Michelle McCabe
Executive Director, Connecticut Main Street Center
Age: 53
Industry experience: 9 years

Michelle McCabe is hitting the road and getting familiar with the more than 80 communities that form the constituency of her downtown revitalization agency, the Connecticut Main Street Center (CMSC). The Hartford-based private nonprofit offers training and educational programs for Connecticut communities tapping into underutilized downtown districts for economic growth and housing production. CMSC DIrectors named McCabe as the new permanent executive director effective July 5, succeeding interim CEO Kimberley Parsons-Whitaker. Most recently, McCabe was interim executive director of workforce development nonprofit HomeBridge Ventures. With a newly expanded staff, the CMSC is ramping up its programming including a Sept. 13 webinar on filling vacant storefronts and a Sept. 29 event at its Hartford offices on strategies for merchants and landlords to engage with municipal departments.

Q: What drew your attention to the potential opportunity to lead the CMSC?

A: A friend of mine saw the posting and drew my attention because she thought it would be a great opportunity. What drew me to the role was a number of different factors. I love main streets, going to a town and seeing that sort of a center with all kinds of activity, from retail to restaurants and arts and culture. Places where we can all gather are a natural draw to me in my personal life. I’m a Connecticut native, and being able to support the diverse main street corridors in our state was an opportunity too good to be true.

Q: What are the essential components of a successful main street district?

A: We look to placemaking, events and the arts community, historical preservation, places that are walkable and bikable, public transportation, sustainability, inclusivity and economic vitality.

Q: The CMSC is ramping up its programming following a significant expansion of its full-time staff. What was the impetus for the organization’s growth?

A: We already receive funding from the state and corporate sponsors. We originally were started by Eversource and we received $350,000 from the American Rescue Plan Act over two years. We have four new staff members including myself. We hired a field services director, Carl Rosa, who was the CEO and director of Main Street Waterbury and brought that program into accreditation through Main Street America. Kristen Lopez is our education and training director and has created an incredible year of webinars and training for our members, in person and online, and we hired a director of development, Brian Thomas.

Q: What are some of the temporary measures to prop up downtown businesses during COVID that have translated into permanent main street strategies?

Q: Generally there is a recognition of the need for flexibility when it comes to the use of space. We have opportunities to activate alleyways and go out more into the street, and probably an enhanced appreciation of the open space that exists in downtowns. All of a sudden, we needed them more. There’s also opportunities to use delivery or online ordering in ways that would never have happened had it not been for the pandemic. We’ve had businesses expand their reach.

Q: What are your plans to familiarize yourself with the member communities?

A: I’m planning on visiting as many as possible. I’ve gone to Simsbury and they have a Main Street Partnership director, Sarah Nielsen, who has done an amazing job on placemaking during COVID keeping her downtown businesses afloat. I just visited Manchester and was there enjoying the Urban Lodge Brewery, and taking a walking tour with Lauren Coakley Vincent from the Downtown Bridgeport Special Services District. Every time I enjoy so many things and look forward to returning, and that’s what we should be seeing: more in-state tourism, because every town is so unique.

Q: What are the CMSC’s top priorities for legislative and policy changes?

A: Right now, we are doing what we are calling our listening tour, speaking with all of our members on how we can be more assistance on the policy, regulatory and financing side and we’ll be releasing the policy recommendations before the next session. We have a strong interest in finding ways to increase transit-accessible housing in our downtowns. As you can imagine, they are typically tied to some kind of transit hub, and we know businesses are having a hard time because their employees get pushed farther and farther away. We’re looking for ways to ensure there are opportunities for a diversity of residents downtown. We’re looking at transit hubs in particular. What are the ways that kind of housing can be incentivized? We’ve been trying to find a formula. If we don’t have enough housing that people can sustainably live in, Connecticut is not going to be economically successful. These are the same people who are looking to go out to eat and shop at stores and go to the cultural events on main street.

McCabe’s Five Favorite Main Street Activities:

  1. Outdoor dining
  2. Connecticut-brewed beer tastings
  3. Art walks
  4. Farmer’s Market and Boutique Shopping
  5. Live Music on a Green