Williamsburg’s Economic Development Authority met Monday to sort out how to make the downtown area more vibrant and appealing.
After reviewing an independent study conducted last year, members of the EDA traded ideas at the Stryker Center for transforming the city’s downtown into a livelier and more energetic place that will attract tourists and locals alike.
“What we wanted to do was identify [a] distinct concept of what downtown vibrancy feels like in a successful community,” EDA Chairman Adam Steely said, “in ways that make sense to different groups of citizens [and] residents.”
The EDA split its priorities into three main categories that members will present to City Council by the fall, with the hope of beginning to implement the ideas in the next nine months.
During the meeting. EDA members said they would like to focus on placemaking, or making downtown into a unique and active destination that will attract a wide assortment of people.
Their ideas included improving signage and adding kiosks throughout town to help visitors find their way. Multiple EDA members expressed the viewpoint that downtown is often difficult for tourists to navigate.
“You’re not struggling to find where Williamsburg is, you’re only struggling once you get off the highway,” Steely said.
Part of the EDA’s focus is not just getting people to head downtown, it’s getting them to stay there.
To do so, EDA members proposed connecting downtown hubs — such as Merchants Square, the Triangle building and the bars near the College Delly — with better pedestrian walkways and even lights and signs to lure people between those areas.
Another placemaking idea involved pop-up shopping — a small plot of land where small and upstart businesses can set up a stand and sell goods along pedestrian corridors.
“People come in the library all the time but they’re in and out. They don’t stay,” David Trichler said. “Let’s first put up a pavilion and see if people stop there and buy a popsicle on a hot summer day.”
The second priority was to create events to fill out the area and build on those already that already exist, such as the Williamsburg Beer Festival and Colonial Williamsburg’s Grand Illumination.
The third was to create an association for downtown businesses similar to the Merchants Square Association, but including all businesses in the downtown area and not just those who call Colonial Williamsburg their landlord.
The association would represent the interests of downtown businesses and restaurants, with one popular idea being marketing a “restaurant row” along Scotland Street, Prince George Street and into Merchants Square.
“The key to downtown vibrancy is eating — we want to say to people in James City County and Washington D.C., ‘We have 20 restaurants,’” EDA member Rick Overy said. “It makes you want to come down here and stay after 5 p.m.”
Implementing the plan
Staff and city officials were briefed last winter on a consultant’s Downtown Vibrancy Study. The consultants — Econsult Solutions and Group Melvin Design – made several recommendations on ways the city could breathe life in downtown Williamsburg.
Their suggestions including revitalizing the downtown shopping scene, adding pop-up shops and a beer garden, connecting shops and attractions with pedestrian walkways and enhancing the city’s existing green spaces. Many of the other suggestions were cosmetic in nature, including installing bike racks, benches, lighting, landscaping and wayfinding signs— all to attract people to downtown and make them want to stay.
It is now up to city staff and officials to consider aspects of the study they wish to implement, including those recommended by the EDA.
Monday’s meeting was a chance for the EDA to take the consultant’s report and set their own priorities before forwarding them to City Council.
“Now it’s the vetting time — now it’s the rubber meeting the road time,” said facilitator and outside consultant Henry Cobb, who led Monday’s meeting.
For purposes of the discussion, downtown was defined as areas east of Richmond Road, south of Lafayette Street and continuing south between Boundary and Nassau Streets, encompassing Merchants Square, the Williamsburg Library, The Municipal and Community buildings, the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg and the William & Mary Law School.
When tackling implementing aspects of the study, city staff and officials are considering the interests of four main groups: residents, college students, downtown businesses and tourists.
The EDA will iron out details and action items of the plan at its regular monthly meeting next Wednesday before finalizing a list of recommendations to City Council.
“I’m excited that we’ve identified a short term implementation outline that is going to see tangible visible changes in the coming months that our residents and visitors will be able to enjoy,” Steely said.