Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Making downtown vibrant: Could the Virginia Main Street program fit in Williamsburg?

Prince George Street was quiet on an evening in December 2018. (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)
Prince George Street was quiet on an evening in December 2018. (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)

Throughout the United States, there’s a recurring street that can be found in both large and small cities and towns.

What is it? Main Street.

Over the last century, the concept and purpose of a “Main Street” has changed, said Kyle Meyer, a community revitalization specialist with the Virginia Main Street program, during a Williamsburg Economic Development Authority meeting Wednesday.

In the early 1900s, Main Streets were where residents needed to go for groceries, other goods and services.

Now, Main Street is a place residents need to “want” to go — Main Streets need to be vibrant hubs of activity, community events and commerce, Meyer said.

While Williamsburg doesn’t have a Main Street in the downtown area, the goal is the same.

“I’d like [downtown] to feel more livable,” said Adam Steely, EDA chairman and a local businessman, during the Wednesday meeting. “There are a lot of residences, but not a lot for residents to see and do.”

At the recommendation of the Downtown Vibrancy Study, the city is looking for ways to boost its downtown economy and culture beyond the historic offerings already in place.

Becoming a Main Street affiliate locality through the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development could be one way to do that.

Virginia Main Street has worked for 30 years to provide resources to local businesses and localities aimed at helping boost their downtown economies.

“This year we are working to increase these impacts by expanding our affiliate tier to include DHCD Commercial District Affiliates and Virginia Downtowns – bringing technical services, training and grant opportunities to more communities,” according to Main Street documents included in Wednesday’s EDA agenda packet.

Why Main Street?

Joining a program such as Main Street is one recommendation from the Downtown Vibrancy Study, which was completed in fiscal year 2018, said Michele DeWitt, the city’s economic development director.

“One of the recommendations was to do a Main Street program to get downtown businesses working together,” DeWitt said. “Right now, we’re in the gathering information stage.”

DeWitt said the downtown area already has the Merchants Square Association for businesses leasing Colonial Williamsburg property in the square, but a Main Street program could help band together other businesses.

City Council heard a presentation in the fall from Virginia Main Street. After that presentation, council directed the EDA to look further into the possibility of becoming a Main Street locality.

During his presentation Wednesday, Meyer told the EDA a Main Street program can also help create an overarching consensus between businesses to keep similar hours.

Still in the works

DeWitt said the Main Street program is still under consideration and nothing is set in stone yet.

“We’ve really just unearthed this and are exploring it,” DeWitt said.

Launching a program like Main Street would require the support of local businesses, which would lead the cause once participation in Virginia Main Street is established.

That process could include creating a standalone nonprofit organization to represent the businesses.

There are three levels to the Main Street program.

If the city applied for the program, DeWitt said it would likely engage with the first tier, which would mean the city applies to be a DHCD commercial district affiliate.

Being an affiliate means the city’s businesses could learn about best practices for marketing and get connected with a network of “peers” that are also working to revitalize downtown areas.

DeWitt said the city can apply at any time to become an affiliate, and the application is free. The application would require City Council to pass a resolution saying it supports joining Virginia Main Street.

If downtown businesses support it, the city could also eventually get an official Virginia Main Street designation, which goes through a competitive two- or three-year application cycle and makes the city a National Main Street Community Accredited locality, DeWitt said.

“This could give downtown businesses a way to make decisions and give them ways to ultimately improve their sales,” DeWitt said.

Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing is the Assistant Editor at WYDaily. Sarah was born in the state of Maine, grew up along the coast, and attended college at the University of Maine at Orono. Sarah left Maine in October 2015 when she was offered a job at a newspaper in West Point, Va. Courts, crime, public safety and civil rights are among Sarah’s favorite topics to cover. She currently covers those topics in Williamsburg, James City County and York County. Sarah has been recognized by other news organizations, state agencies and civic groups for her coverage of a failing fire-rescue system, an aging agriculture industry and lack of oversight in horse rescue groups. In her free time, Sarah enjoys lazing around with her two cats, Salazar and Ruth, drinking copious amounts of coffee and driving places in her white truck.

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