The city's economic survival may depend on the ability of its "small-town merchants" to bring "small-town values" back to the downtown, according to the director of the Utah Heritage Foundation.

Michael Leventhal told City Council members Tuesday that preservation of American Fork's identity and economic vitality could be aided by a national effort - the Main Street program - that helps small towns combat urban sprawl and business competition with larger communities and shopping malls.American Fork's threatened identity crisis is due in part to its central location between Provo and Salt Lake City, he said.

"What I've seen in Utah is you get a city like Park City, which has commuters going to Salt Lake but has maintained itself," Leventhal said.

Cities such as Sandy, on the other hand, have "slid into Salt Lake City."

Juel Belmont, chairwoman of the American Fork Historic Preservation Committee, told the Deseret News, "This town's disappearing right in front of our eyes, little by little."

The city needs to take action to prevent American Fork from becoming just an extension of U.S. 91 or like South State Street in Salt Lake City or State Street in Orem, Belmont said.

American Fork needs to determine if it wants to maintain its independence, Leventhal said.

"There has to be a commitment from the city and the merchants that they want to be different than they are," he said.

And merchants and the city have to be supportive of each other.

"If the merchants aren't going to buy from each other, if the city isn't going to buy from merchants in their town, it isn't going to work out," Leventhal said.

Council members agreed the city's historic committee and the Heritage Foundation should meet with city and business representatives to discuss the direction of American Fork.

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The national Main Street program's goal is to help small towns and cities maintain their independence by focusing on four areas:

- Designing a unifying downtown theme.

- Organizing a property-management team to implement the theme.

- Restructuring economies to attract businesses to the downtown area.

- Coordinating promotion efforts among merchants.