Kendall Whittier Main Street (KWMS) was selected by a national jury as a 2020 Great American Main Street Award (GAMSA) winner for turning an area of decades-long blight into a lively hub for arts and culture.
The exclusive honor, which recognizes communities for their excellence in comprehensive preservation-based commercial district revitalization, is awarded to only three Main Street programs nationwide each year. It is the sixth program in Oklahoma to receive the award and the first since 2006.
“For the last decade, Kendall Whittier Main Street has been working hard to transform a historic neighborhood back to its early days as Tulsa’s first suburban shopping district,” said Jessica Jackson Seay, Executive Director of Kendall Whittier Main Street.
Kendall Whittier was a bustling shopping district from the late 1920s through the 1950s, but when a highway bisected the neighborhood in 1967, the area struggled to recover. By the early 2000s, the neighborhood was considered Tulsa’s red-light district– home to vacant storefronts and adult-oriented businesses.
When KWMS got its start in 2010, the district had a 35 percent occupancy rate. Thanks to community-led business recruitment and retention efforts, occupancy has grown to 100 percent today. Kendall Whittier is now home to a mix of galleries, breweries, restaurants and non-mainstream retail.
The district has seen 40 new businesses opening since 2013. In all, KWMS has seen a total of 350 jobs created and $158 million private dollars reinvested.
“Through listening to residents, thousands of volunteer hours, quite a bit of elbow grease – and, of course, the proven Main Street Approach – Kendall Whittier is now a funky little place for Tulsans to gather with other creatives and to feel a sense of community and support locally-owned businesses,” Jackson Seay added.
To overcome its perception as an unsafe area, KWMS developed a façade grant program to both beautify the neighborhood and reward private investment. They also grew an events calendar from one public event in 2013 to more than 20 events annually. From art walks and outdoor concerts to yoga and multi-cultural celebrations, KWMS aims to offer free or low-cost programming that appeals to everyone in the community.
“Kendall Whittier exemplifies the power of the Main Street Approach to truly transform a district,” said National Main Street Center President and CEO Patrice Frey. “In just 10 years, Kendall Whittier Main Street has radically changed the perception of their neighborhood and become the center of community life for its residents.”
Even after COVID-19 forced many businesses to temporarily shut their doors, no businesses in the district have permanently shuttered due to the pandemic. KWMS credits a Rent Relief Program with making all the difference. Funded by the George Kaiser Family Foundation, Lobeck Taylor Family Foundation, the National Main Street Center’s Grills Fund for Main Street Revitalization, local partners and private donations, KWMS gave out $36,200 in rent relief from May to July.
“We are very proud of Kendall Whittier Main Street for receiving the 2020 GAMSA,” said Buffy Hughes, Director of the Oklahoma Main Street Center. “The turnaround of this district has been miraculous but not without concerted, concentrated effort by the program’s board of directors, volunteers, residents. and Tulsa city leaders. We look forward to continued progress within Kendall Whittier.”
KWMS has been so successful that it inspired a citywide Main Street program modeled after their approach. In January 2019, the City of Tulsa launched a “Destination Districts” program in partnership with the Oklahoma Main Street Center to revitalize commercial districts throughout the city. The program focuses on powering the economy and creating new opportunities for Tulsans, with a focus on expanding equity across the city.
“The Destination Districts Program aims to create places where Tulsans want to be, and an organization like Kendall Whittier Main Street serves as an excellent model for how to create those vibrant communities in other parts of our city,” said Luisa Krug, Destinations District manager. “We are excited to learn from them as a 2020 GAMSA winner!”
Kendall Whittier Main Street is a nonprofit organization that inspires the ongoing revitalization and growth of a historic and cultural neighborhood in Tulsa, striving to transform it back to a thriving, walkable commercial district. Kendall Whittier is a Certified Cultural District.
Other 2020 GAMSA winners are Tupelo, Miss., and Boyne City, Mich.