Walking around Heritage Fest last weekend it was great to see downtown Kent showing off. The streets were lined with people of all ages, the music was thumping on 3 stages, local artists were selling their goods, and the food vendors did so well that they actually ran out food by the day’s end. Throw in an historic train ride, championship moto-cross jumping and eye-popping fireworks, and it just doesn’t get any better than that. Downtown Kent had found its groove and it showed on the faces of everyone there. Heritage Fest is the Super Bowl of downtown events but Main Street Kent is working hard to make sure downtown is in the game every week. After 6 months Main Street has brought more energy and focus to downtown Kent than its ever had, and along with it, it’s inspired a new confidence for what the future holds — which is priceless.
I’ve had businesses call to say that they look for Main Street communities to open businesses in, and as soon as Kent became one they became interested in downtown Kent. I’ve seen existing businesses that never got along actually work together to support Main Street projects.
Two business owners told me that they were going to make significant investments in their buildings downtown because of the direction they saw downtown heading thanks to Main Street.
The City is geting twice as many new trash cans for half the cost thanks to Main Street. We’ve had great press coverage in Akron and Cleveland thanks to Main Street.
We’re getting a professional assessment of river recreational opportunities (kayaking, canoeing) thanks to Main Street. Oh, and in their spare time Main Street is preparing a dowtown redevelopment strategy to accelerate downtown revitalization.
Most of these are little things, but it’s those little things that add up to significant change over time. And best of all through those little things, attitudes change, confidence builds, pride is engaged and momentum starts rolling. To me, that’s the real difference that Main Street brings to the table.
Main Street helps make believers out of all of us.
If you’re not a believer yet, take a look at how Main Street helped transform Danville Virginia from a declining, blighted has-been to a new downtown destination.
Creating a downtown destination in Danville, Va.
In just a few short years, Main Street in Danville, Va., has been transformed from an aging, unattractive urban route with vacant properties and neglected storefronts, to a robust and charming downtown hub that signals new economic vitality in this historic area. The revitalization of this corridor, now bustling with shops, restaurants, and businesses, has been a key driver in Danville’s recharged economy, reflected in an impressive influx of new jobs and downtown investments.
“It wasn’t long ago that we had to dodge Main Street when we were trying to recruit new businesses and show folks around the city,” said Lyle Lacy, city of Danville deputy city manager. “It’s the heart of the downtown but we didn’t really want to show it to people. Now we start our tour on Main Street—it’s lively and appealing and we’re very proud of it.”
Highlights include the new gateway plaza at the base of Main Street near the Dan River; colorful building murals that depict scenes from the city’s history; new and upgraded faÇades; and vibrant signage, plantings, and banners. Most importantly, the street is brimming with new and expanded businesses, including boutiques; cafes; studios for arts, crafts, and photography; law firms; financial institutions; and other professional organizations.
Danville’s Main Street success story, coupled with the nearby revitalization of the city’s tobacco warehouse district along the river, underscores the importance of innovative partnerships, creative redevelopment strategies, and the vision and energy to regenerate an urban center that will draw local residents and visitors of all ages—offering something for everyone.
A multi-faceted approach
“Some of the best innovations are born out of crisis,” said Lacy. “We were very concerned about the economy in the region, and knew we had to take some bold steps.” Primarily dependent on tobacco and textile employers for much of its history, the city’s job market had begun to suffer with the decline of these major industries.
“We had a lot of displaced workers,” noted Anne Moore, the city’s redevelopment coordinator. “We determined that increasing our base in technology and retail would be important to the future of our economy, and recognized that revitalizing the downtown and helping to create new business there would be important in terms of showcasing Danville as a great place to live and work.”
The downtown redevelopment initiative began with a partnership formed in 2000 with the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Main Street Center. Becoming a Main Street community—one of 19 now in Virginia—enabled the city to tap into a national network of resources linking historic preservation with economic development.
The city’s community development department worked closely with the Downtown Danville Association (DDA) and local volunteers to develop a multi-faceted approach to renewing the downtown area, including Main Street and the tobacco warehouse district. The Main Street program’s Four-Point Approach served as a valuable guide, focusing on the organization of available people and assets; economic restructuring to employ, renew, and revitalize; design efforts to highlight the old and merge with the new; and promotion to attract investment, visitation, and commerce.
Organization and leadership
“We knew that the first step was to organize and create some leadership and structure for accomplishing our goals,” said Liz Sater, redevelopment projects assistant for the city. “The board of directors of the DDA has been vital in setting direction and helping with fundraising. Several merchants in the area also stepped up to the task, and that has been critical—we need the buy-in and support of local merchants. It’s really important to engage as many people as possible in the process.”
“We work closely with the city, individual businesses, and property owners to facilitate new projects and raise awareness about the downtown,” said Melissa Keatts, DDA president. “We seek everyone’s involvement—we must all work together to create a vibrant atmosphere with a diverse mix of businesses that showcase our downtown. This partnership has made our successes possible, and will continue to serve us well as we develop a sense of community and pride in our downtown.”
The city and the DDA began to pursue economic restructuring initiatives that would help to attract and retain businesses.
I think it’s important that economic development leaders recognize that sometimes bold action is required,” added Sater. “Creative strategies are important when it comes to financing, we’ve learned that it’s important to take the initiative and make things happen.”
John Ranson, AIA, an architect with the consulting firm of Dewberry, which has a Danville office, is among the volunteers who have helped to spearhead design improvements along Main Street. “A historic Main Street is a wonderful backdrop that can reflect a sense of community spirit and pride,” he said. A member of the DDA’s design committee, Ranson and his co-workers have helped the organization by providing as-built drawings, conceptual sketches, and advice to the city to help property owners envision the potential for improving faÇades and restoring buildings.
As the DDA’s efforts gained momentum, the vision for short-term physical improvements became clear. Key components of the improvement program, which has been highly successful, include the following.
* Main Street faÇade improvements: Since the spring of 2004, 38 storefronts along Main Street have undergone substantial faÇade improvements. The city has matched the costs of owner-sponsored improvements with grants of up to $30,000—one of the most generous programs in the United States.
* Downtown mural program: With an eye toward creating a lively display of public art that provides a panoramic history of the city, the DDA is raising funds for a series of 10 murals for the exteriors of downtown buildings. Two murals have already been completed. The first depicts the Old 97 railroad and the second portrays a turn-of-the-century trolley scene. The program has been supported by the Virginia Commission for the Arts and many private donations.
* Downtown gateway: With design support from Dewberry, a new, pedestrian-friendly plaza area was created as a gateway to Main Street. The circular plaza is located at the base of Main Street and just across the Martin Luther King Bridge crossing over the Dan River.
* Warehouse district revitalization: Local leaders readily identified the potential for many of the city’s historic brick tobacco warehouses—largely vacant by the 1990s—to be renovated and converted to other uses. Recent successes include the adaptive reuse of one warehouse into a new nano-manufacturing facility for Luna Innovations, a Virginia-based technology firm. Others have been converted into new condominiums, adding a much-needed residential component to the downtown area.
* The Crossing at the Dan: The Crossing at the Dan is a vibrant community hub located along the Dan River adjacent to the tobacco warehouse district. The site was once a busy Southern Railroad rail yard, and has now been transformed into an educational, entertainment, and recreational center.
Promotion and outreach
“We knew from the start that it would be important to get the word out,” said Sater. “As quickly as we could, we began organizing events that would draw people, including families, downtown.” The DDA helped to launch four signature events: an annual Shamrock 5K race in March, a “Jazz on the Patio” concert program twice a year, a late summer Main Street sidewalk sale, and a “Holiday Traditions” winter event with carolers and carriage rides. All of the events have become successful and much-anticipated community gatherings.
Both the city and DDA have also worked tirelessly with other community groups and the local media to build support and interest in the downtown.
A unique destination
“We wanted to make downtown Danville a unique destination,” said Sater. “We felt that we needed to consider a lot of different avenues, including retail, residential, and cultural, to make this work.”
In just three years, the city has generated nearly $54 million in public-private downtown improvements, along with many new businesses and jobs. A trip along Main Street quickly shows that the work continues, with several building restorations underway.
“The city has created a downtown that really feels like home to people—it feels real, not artificial,” said Dewberry’s Ranson. “They’ve worked with the existing urban fabric—both new buildings and historic structures. Our downtown is now a celebration of our past and our future.”