This was an invigorating week of introspection for the City of Radford. Virginia Main Street program representatives facilitated meetings with different city stakeholder groups, solicited views through the community engagement session, and reported out their preliminary findings.
Radford is an affiliate member with the Virginia Main Street program and is working in partnership with VMS to explore ways to spur economic development.
The public input session took place on Tuesday evening. The training room in the NRV Community Services building was crowded with interested citizens, university representatives and business owners.
After introductions, Rebecca Rowe, a program manager with the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development gave participants a brief overview of the Virginia Main Street program. The program was developed over 40 years ago to address the disinvestment of historic downtown commercial districts and help create economic development in those areas.
She said for Radford, the section being studied includes Main Street and immediate areas around it all the way from the university out through the western part of the city. “We’re not talking East-West; we’re talking the entire scope of the two downtown districts,” Rowe said.
She explained that Main Street is a “grassroots” level program designed to get input from the ground up, rather than a top-down type of approach merely making recommendations. Community involvement and engagement are critical, as this approach is accountable to all stakeholders (ALL different groups: college students, business owners, property owners, new residents, long-term residents, etc.) in the city.
In the Main Street program, there are four “pillars,” and there could be committees for each of them.
The four include Design (What does the district look like now? Can people find their way from the interstate?
When they get there can they find parking? Does the district have the amenities for which those people are looking? Organization (Do you have the appropriate organizational structure in place?
Are you planning for sustainability as far as making money is concerned?); Promotion (the New River, the University, museums, parks—are there activities that bring people to the business district and adequate advertising?); and Economic Vitality (business recruitment and retention—Do we have the right businesses to involve all stakeholders?
Do the businesses have the resources that they need to stay in business?). And, in the transformation process, what will be focused on moving forward? Tourism? Residents? Light-scale manufacturing? An arts and entertainment district? Combinations? Marketing studies and community vision will help make those determinations.
Community vision was the primary focus of Tuesday and Wednesday’s meetings. Next, they will study the local market: Who’s coming to Radford? Who’s shopping here?
Do we have too much of this or not enough of that? Then, across the four pillars, strategies are developed for revitalization. They will look at both quantitative (increasing the number of businesses; increasing sales tax; increasing revenues, etc.) and qualitative outcomes (Have we bridged the East-West divide? Are we seeing a lot more students downtown? Are businesses staying open later and has community engagement increased?).
Joy Rumley, a program administrator with the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, led the community input brainstorming to classify assets, challenges, and opportunities.
The group identified several positive attributes for Radford such as the school system, the university and students, parks and recreation, the charitable groups in the city working together and many more.
Under challenges, items such as RU and the city not working closely together, limited dining options, parking, business mix, etc. were mentioned.
With possible opportunities, increasing RU student engagement, the 180 acres of the old foundry, expanded recreational activities, and more restaurants, breweries, cafes, and a grocery store were included.
Similar sessions were held for other stakeholder groups, and all of that information was compiled into a report shared by Rowe Wednesday night.
These are some of the stakeholder groups that were involved over the two days of meetings: city council; tourism, recreation, and chamber of commerce; developers, realtors, and property owners; city staff; the university, school system and library; community; merchants; non-profits and civic organizations; and services, banking and financial planning.
The Main Street program is about partnerships such as the public-private variety. Here are groups to be included in partnerships: business owners, property owners, local government, residents, downtown employees, utilities, financial institutions, historic preservationists, service organizations, arts and cultural institutions, local media, youth and schools, churches, surrounding communities and the visitor’s bureau.
Groups should be thinking in terms of collaboration and partnerships versus being competitors. Everyone is a potential collaborator.
Outcomes of the Main Street Program include sustainable development, entrepreneurship (homegrown and small business, not large industry), community pride (an identified Radford asset), public/private partnerships, vibrancy (currently felt lacking in the downtown district), and a “sense of place” (Radford as its own unique community built on its own assets).
Here is a compilation of assets or “best things” about the community from all of the stakeholder groups: the New River (mentioned by every group), parks (Bisset, Wildwood as examples), Radford University, the public school system, the community/our people, and a historic character/small town feel. There were many others, but these were the ones consistently mentioned.
Next is a list of current challenges: parking; the appearance of buildings/properties and being appropriately maintained and invested in (issues include unrealistic building owners in terms of expecting too high rent, lack of property maintenance, absentee landlords and the general cleanliness of buildings and the district as a whole); empty storefronts; lack of code enforcement/inspections; the need for higher quality and more diversity in retail (more regulation of the types of businesses in the district and service vs. retail—the city could take a look at zoning to see if some uses are still appropriate); businesses that open without an appropriate business plan and close quickly (no small business education/resources); convincing people what is possible (the challenge is to get everyone to see the vision of what the downtown districts could be—some are focused on the past rather than looking forward); us vs. them (East-West, university-townspeople); poor communication (university to most others, city to merchants, city to residents, merchants to merchants, and property owner to property owner).
Here is a list of identified opportunities: Radford University (keeping RU grads here to start businesses and families, internships in the community for students rather than being seen as just customers, coordinating events like homecoming and parents’ weekend, and students as customers); amenities for Radford residents; the foundry (this is not really within the scope of the Main Street program); building facade improvements; business (recruitment, expansion, and development); increased river use (trails, bikes and recreational businesses); amphitheater and performing arts/entertainment space; a brewery; events that bring residents to Main Street; housing; proximity to I-81; branding (this is currently being developed); and volunteerism.
These are investments needed to make Radford a destination: more investment in the river (boardwalk/trail/connectivity with downtown; wayfinding—getting from downtown to the river or park); events; improved use of outdoor space, specifically Bisset Park); investments in the facades and present buildings; outdoor dining (came up often); improved bike lanes; high-speed internet; branding/community identity/storytelling (helps everyone see one Radford, all connected); incubator/maker space/co-working/flex space (place where a number of businesses could work together); business recruitment; a new visitor center separate from the museum, perhaps on main street; rehabilitation of housing/new housing; parking garage; and a year-round farmer’s market facility.
It was mentioned by an audience member that it is, indeed, important to see Radford as a destination. Someone also said grouping small businesses to work cooperatively on an online ordering business could create an international reach.
Rowe emphasized that that and other similar ideas should continue to come forward in this process.
These are some short term Main Street recommendations (Rowe emphasized that people in the community will have to “step-up” and get involved in these issues and committees): focus on 3-12 months (What are the impacts we can make now?); create a steering team; conduct merchant/business owner meetings (How can we work as a collective to move toward the common goal of improving the community?); conduct building owner meetings; do a NRV Regional Commission parking study (study quantity of parking, needed enforcement, handicapped parking, etc.); volunteerism—conduct a Clean-up Downtown Day (make a visible impact and show people that we are invested in the downtown districts—Radford Proud); research local and regional resources for small businesses (the city is doing this, but other organizations could get involved); and research grants to develop recreation and park opportunities (the city can’t take on all of it alone, so grants should be explored); visually tie East and West sides (tactical urbanism such as painted crosswalks or banners); begin conversations to identify courses of study at RU that can benefit the community (outdoor recreation, for example, that capitalizes on developing the New River and Bisset Park); get additional stakeholder input from RU/residents/other civic groups; continue West End Wednesdays (Create promotion opportunities for the East End?); small business Saturdays and buy local campaigns; attend Community Engagement/Virginia Main Street webinar on October 1; attend the VMS Design Opportunity Awareness conference in Bristol on October 11; and the city (explore local incentives—ones that will spur the most significant amount of investment; conduct a parking and enforcement study; zoning—allowable uses and what is appropriate; property maintenance; branding and apply for a DHCD Commercial District Affiliate grant; develop an easily accessible community calendar with community and regional events; complete a business and building inventory.
Mayor David Horton mentioned that many of the items had been discussed by the city council. He also said, “…we don’t want this just to be four or five people or maybe city staff or [a] small group making all these decisions.” He went on to say there will be many more conversations moving forward.
“We’ll hopefully be able to pull in everybody in this room but also…other people,” he said, indicating the importance of all stakeholders sharing responsibility for the success of the program.
“We’re ready to work as a community to get us over the top…I think all of us together can make that happen,” Horton added.
The next steps will be to finalize the Main Street report with raw data and recommendations including a marketing study in the next few months. Participants were also encouraged to sign-up to be on a steering team or project team.
Rowe emphasized again that “this is something that is not going to be city government driven; this is not going to be Virginia Main Street driven; this is going to be community member driven. We really need…people to take this on.”
“This has to be community-led…Main Street is really about the community coming together and taking ahold of that vision,” she said.