A proposal by Town Manager Kaj Dentler to explore the possibility of Leesburg joining the national Main Street program is expected to be one of the hotly debated items of the fiscal year 2018 budget deliberations.
The National Main Street Center Inc., a subsidiary of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, works with a nationwide network of programs and communities to encourage preservation-based community revitalization. It has equipped more than 2,000 older commercial districts with the skills and organizing framework to do just that, according to its website.
The cities or towns accepted into the Main Street program form a nonprofit with an executive director and board of directors that works in concert with the local government and citizen advisory groups. Dentler has recommended $110,000 be allocated in next fiscal year’s budget if the Town Council chooses to move forward with the program. That amount would cover the annual salary for an executive director, as well as set-up costs like office space and office equipment.
“Since I’ve become town manager I’ve believed downtown Leesburg has been on the brink of a significant revitalization, which is why I’ve referred to downtown’s time as now,” Dentler said in support of Leesburg joining the program. “I also believe that a national proven model such as the Main Street program is an excellent tool to help the downtown reach its potential in concert with what the private sector is already doing. The goal is to support the efforts that are already going on, not to get in its way.”
Expected to be a focal point of a March 13 budget work session on budget enhancements, it will not be the first time the Leesburg Town Council has considered such an item. Town Public Information Officer Betsy Arnett notes that in 1990 the idea of applying to become a Main Street community was floated. Eleven years later, John Henry King, then the assistant to the town manager for economic development, also proposed the town pursue the Main Street designation but, again, no formal action was taken. In 2004, the town created the downtown coordinator position with some of the same goals of a Main Street executive director—to oversee growth and economic development opportunities in the downtown area. That position was held by former town employees Lisa Capraro and Karen Jones, respectively, but the position was never filled again after Jones was appointed the town’s business retention coordinator.
Over the years that the town considered the Main Street program, many residents and business advocacy groups formed to promote preservation and economic activity downtown, including Leesburg Crossroads, the Historic District Residents Association, the Downtown Improvements Association and, currently, Historic Downtown Leesburg Association, formerly known as the Leesburg Downtown Business Association. Main Street Loudoun, overseen by the county’s Department of Economic Development and then-employee Martha Mason Semmes, who would go on to work for both the towns of Purcellville and Middleburg, was formed in the early 2000s to oversee opportunities for all of the county’s towns and villages. It was not affiliated with the Virginia Main Street program but had some of its same tenets. That effort lasted for about five years, Arnett said.
While the town government, advocacy groups, and property owners have all worked separately to do some of the same things that a Main Street program would do – promotion, events, marketing, and revitalization efforts – moving to a Main Street community would bring all those functions under one umbrella. At its recent meeting, members of the town’s Economic Development Commission supported Dentler’s suggestion to talk about whether it would be a good fit for Leesburg. The Main Street program has been a success for the many communities in Virginia that have joined its ranks. Although there are currently no Main Street communities in Loudoun, Berryville, Winchester, Staunton, Warrenton, Manassas, and Harrisonburg are part of the program and have seen success.
Julie Markowitz, who oversees the Main Street program in Staunton, said the Main Street program has been a boon for the city’s downtown. The program celebrated its 20th anniversary in Staunton last year. To operate, the Staunton Downtown Development Association receives $40,000 from the city’s General Fund, in addition to money brought in from additional taxes levied on businesses in the downtown service district. The other half of its funding comes in from fundraising, events and grants.
In addition to providing collaborative advertising and marketing for the city’s businesses, the SDDA is active on social media in promoting its downtown, hosts a slew of events, and runs a robust website advertising all there is to do in the town. It’s also rolled out programs like the downtown discount card loyalty program and a downtown gift card program that’s good for all shops in the downtown area. Markowitz serves as a built-in advocate for the downtown, keeping an eye on any potential policy changes that could affect private sector revitalization efforts.