The below article appeared in the July 9, 2008 edition of the Daily-News Record.
A Not-So-Sudden Rebirth: Five Years On, Group Says City’s Downtown Renaissance A Fact
By Heather Bowser
HARRISONBURG – Thanks in part to the revitalization group Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance, the city’s center seems to have woken up, say several business owners.
Last week, HDR marked its fifth year as an organization and Eddie Bumbaugh, the group’s first and only executive director, took time with the Daily News-Record to talk a bit about its growth and what it has done to help breathe life back into the city’s downtown.
“Now, there are more developers and investors interested in acquiring property than there is property available,” Bumbaugh said. “There are many people who say, ‘I wish I had bought property five years ago.'”
Mayor Rodney Eagle agreed.
“I’m very impressed,” Eagle said. “We can definitely see a change downtown. We’ve got new restaurants, new shops [and] more people living downtown. … They’re hitting their stride.”
Once Upon A Downtown
Just a few years ago, however, downtown Harrisonburg looked anything but vibrant.
Sidewalks were bumpy and the lampposts were bare and boring. Several buildings were vacant and the farmers held their twice-weekly market under the dreary municipal parking deck.
The anchor retailers had long since made a beeline to the new strip centers and mall in eastern Harrisonburg. The downtown, meanwhile, seemed to slumber.
But then, the climate began to change. Increasingly, planners, businesses and residents began efforts to restore downtowns across the country, including places like Staunton, whetting the appetite of folks in Harrisonburg for a similar rebirth.
And, as people warmed up to downtown, HDR, a nonprofit partially funded by the city, has helped push that process along, business and property owners said. The group’s efforts weren’t the cause of the great awakening, per se, but contributed to it by promoting, educating and holding events downtown, they said.
Well before HDR was established, various volunteer groups performed small-scale projects in the mid-1980s and early ’90s, including building a replica of the old Spring House on the courthouse property.
The city attempted to continue revitalization using only volunteers, “but their initiatives couldn’t sustain themselves,” Bumbaugh said.
Then, in 2002, a proposal to create a downtown pedestrian mall was floated, but rejected. Still, the idea generated excitement among downtown merchants and city officials.
So, on July 1, 2003, the city provided office space in the Hardesty-Higgins House and $80,000 for materials and a full-time position and HDR was born.
Since that time, the group helped beef up downtown by creating a historic tax district, luring locals and tourists with events, making the place pretty and recruiting retailers and developers to the area.
The idea, Bumbaugh said, is to get people living, working and going to events downtown, which in turn creates a base to support its retailers.
HDR has helped with landscaping, pushed for new sidewalks and the installation of historic light poles on South Main Street. The group has hung banners and built “way-finding” signs to direct visitors to downtown points of interest.
And, although HDR didn’t pay for the new $300,000 Downtown Harrisonburg Farmers’ Market pavilion, now under construction on South Liberty Street, the organization played a key support role in developing the plans.
The nonprofit also has awarded about $50,000 for 30 façade enhancement matching grants to downtown businesses and property owners. For example, Glen’s Fairprice built an awning, Shenandoah Bikes built a pedestrian walkway, Kline’s Dairy Bar bought picnic tables and large flowerpots and the American Legion restored the World War I memorial statue at Liberty and Main streets.
HDR has created, sponsors or orchestrates most of the signature downtown events, such as Block Party in the ‘Burg, Holidays on Main Street, Halloween on the Square, Court Days Festival and Valley Fourth.
The group also helps run Fridays on the Square, the Veterans Day Parade and, for the first time this year, MACRoCk, a weekend event that showcases dozens of independent rock acts.
“We don’t always have extra business the day of [an event], but people see us and they say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that was here,’ and they come back,” said Amanda Monger, co-owner of Downtown Wine and Gourmet, located on Court Square.
Work Paying Off
By all accounts, HDR’s work seems to be paying off.
Since the group was created, Downtown 56, Luigi’s Pizza Co., Clementine, Blue Nile Ethiopian Cuisine, Earth & Tea Cafe and the Teratsa at Dave’s Downtown Taverna have opened for business.
And, it’s not just restaurants and shops that have been returning to the city’s core.
One of HDR’s goals has been to increase the number of housing units in the downtown district. Helping with that piece of the puzzle has been Andrew Forward, a partner in the City Exchange building, a renovation of the former Wetsel Seed Co. warehouse that created 26 luxury flats.
Forward’s newest project, Urban Exchange, is more ambitious: A 194-unit mixed-use development at 237 E. Market St. is under construction and slated to be finished in less than a year.
HDR, Forward said, helps get “people enthused” about investing in downtown.
Since August 2004, volunteers have given more than 35,000 hours of service at an estimated value of $650,000, Bumbaugh said.
These days, about half the group’s $250,000 annual budget – $120,000 – is paid by the city, the rest comes from memberships, fundraising events and vender fees, Bumbaugh said.
The downtown, he said, is awake.