Too much emphasis has been placed on investment in cities rather than towns, a leading expert in the regeneration of high streets has said.
Prof Cathy Parker said successive governments prioritised funding for places such as Cardiff in the hope it would "trickle out" to surrounding towns, which "just won't happen".
The Welsh Government said towns would benefit from a £90m fund.
Ministers will also encourage public services to move into town centres.
The future of towns across the UK has moved up the political agenda since the general election.
'Rhyl used to be thriving'
The two most deprived area of Wales are in Rhyl and regeneration efforts have led to the opening of a new leisure centre SC2, which has a water park and assault courses for adults and children.
The council has also invested in the promenade and last year a Business Improvement District (BID) was established by retailers in the town.
There are now 13 of these in Wales, set up by local firms who pay a levy to be spent in the area to make it more attractive to visitors.
Chairman of Rhyl's BID, Chrome Menswear owner Nadeem Ahmad, said: "There was a time when there wasn't enough room for people to walk [down the high street]. All the shops were thriving - it was a holiday destination.
"There were so many bed and breakfasts and hotels. That's all gone I'm afraid."
However, he thinks there is a lot of potential in the town: "Rhyl has a beach that is just beautiful [but] it's not connected to the high street. At the moment no-one can see it."
Prof Parker, from Manchester Metropolitan University, said: "Business Improvement Districts are a good mechanism for focusing on a lot of basic things that need to be right in a town."
Businesses often see the benefits of working together to increase the number of people coming in, even if that means paying an extra levy on top of high rates and rents, she said.
Strong leadership is the key to transforming town centres, she added, as has happened in the south Wales town of Treorchy, which last month took first place in Great British High Street awards.
Prof Parker said better shopping and leisure facilities were important, but in many towns the problem runs deeper.
"When you've got places like Rhyl that have entrenched deprivation... you absolutely have to look at the problems communities face.
"There's low employment, lower income, poor health, all those need addressing but your town centre is a place to do that.
"Make sure there are more opportunities for employment, education, colleges, health centres and other things that will start to address the needs of the community rather than just thinking about retail and shopping and having a nice latte."