Using original survey data from a national sample of small cities in the USA, this paper explores the perceptions of policy-makers as to what matters for the viability of their downtowns. How do policymakers of small cities perceive the viability of their downtowns? What policies and programs are associated with perceptions of viability? The results show policy-makers across the USA believe their downtown districts have strengths and weaknesses. Perceived strengths include safety from crime, access to government services, pedestrian safety, cultural opportunities, availability of restaurants and tolerance of diversity. Perceived weaknesses include a lack of available grocery stores, hotels, housing and economic competitiveness with areas outside of downtown. These perceptions indicate policy-makers are concerned about their downtown's ability to compete in the marketplace and that they feel more positively about issues perceived to be within their locus of control. A controlled multivariate model suggests the presence of mixed-use zoning, a Main Street program, the ability for downtown to compete with businesses outside of the downtown, higher levels of cooperation among key stakeholders and quality of life ratings are all significantly related to whether policy-makers perceive their downtowns to be viable. These findings are important because they examine competing and complementary explanations of downtown development and viability for small cities for the first time. They also point to the need to address the continual tensions between downtown and suburban development with innovative policy solutions especially for small cities.