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“You’ve gotta make people believe.”
Fredericksburg’s Economic Development Authority is putting on a strategic planning session all day today. The EDA invited several out-of-town economic development officials to share ideas, and now EDA members and various other business and other community leaders are working in small groups to try to establish some goals in areas like business development, the riverfront, downtown, etc.
This morning, though, the entire group heard from five different speakers from around Virginia and beyond. One theme from those discussions: How to build political will for major revitalization efforts in central business districts.
(More after the jump.)
You don’t have to look too hard to find someone in Fredericksburg who will say it’s ludicrous for the city to be putting money into a public park on the river. Many of today’s speakers ran up against public opposition while trying to plan and build political support for riverfront, beachfront and downtown revitalization projects.
Henry Chambers, retired mayor of Beaufort, S.C., talked about standing around with grumbling downtown merchants while watching the federal-funded riverfront redevelopment project he oversaw in that town get going in the 1960s and ’70s.
“We had to turn around the public opinion,” he said.
Chambers said getting buy-in from elected officials beyond the local level was key to building public support for the project, which turned the riverfront from a collection of buildings dumping raw sewage into the water to a setting that now allows Beaufort to host riverfront events that bring thousands of people to town.
Looking at Fredericksburg’s riverfront and its redevelopment plans, Chambers said, “It can be done. It’s gonna be difficult, and it’s going to take the backing of the mayor.”
He also suggested Fredericksburg lean on its federal representatives to”open up the floodgates of Obama’s giveaways.”
Marjette Upshur, economic development director in Lynchburg, talked about the leadership that city required to get its downtown revitalization plans up and running. I was the Lynchburg city reporter for two and half years during the early days of that plan, and came across plenty of people who thought the city would be better off bulldozing the downtown into the James River than putting any public money into it. The late Rev. Jerry Falwell often said as much from the pulpit during his weekly televised church service.
Upshur said that leadership from the city manager (former Spotsylvania County Administrator Kimball Payne) and the city’s planning director were key to getting the City Council to commit to spending $1 million a year for 20 years in capital improvements downtown. Those have included burying utilities, refurbishing streetscapes and major monuments in the downtown and building a riverfront park.
The city also owned a lot of the decaying properties in that downtown, and the council agreed to use some creative deals and public-private partnerships to put tax-paying businesses in some of these buildings. They gave some away for $1, and even backed loans and used federal grant allocations to help with financing for private projects that have included loft apartments, restaurants and other businesses to bring people downtown.
Those efforts were further helped by a private, nonprofit downtown Main Street volunteer organization that generated its own funding stream to invest in downtown. That spurred even more private investment in a central business district that many in the city had written off several years ago.
Fredericksburg DRMI President Bonnie DeLelys asked Upshur how Lynchburg was able to convince downtown merchants and property owners to take advantage of a facade improvement grant program the city used to try to spur improvement in smaller properties (facade improvement grants have been part of the Fredericksburg EDA’s JumpStart grant program).
Upshur said the planning director in place when the downtown plan took effect would sometimes go so far as to personally visit out-of-town absentee landlords to convince them to invest in their properties. (These actions sometimes stirred up controversy of their own, but there are some formerly decrepit buildings with businesses in them today because of them.) But in general, she said the most important thing is to cultivate close relationships with the folks who have the power to turn around the look and feel of the central business district.
“You’ve gotta make people believe,” she said. “They’ve gotta catch the energy of what you’re trying to do.”