Comparing Main Street Districts and Local Big Box Stores

Mapping the Commonwealth recently created a series of photos that overlay ten historic commercial districts (most of them Virginia Main Street districts) with the community’s local big box stores and parking lots.


Culpeper’s 2012 Great American Main Street Award winning Main Street district overlaid by a local big box store and parking lot. Photo credit: Mapping the Commonwealth.

These photos are interesting for several reasons. They help illustrate why the local historic commercial district is so financially valuable to a community. Last November, VMS posted a blog suggesting that rather than compare the value of different land uses within a community building-to-building (for example, a Walmart vs. a mixed-use building in the historic commercial district), it makes more sense to look at the per-acre value of different land uses. Due to the density of development in Virginia’s historic Main Street districts, a vibrant and thriving district with a variety of first floor commercial uses and fully-occupied upper stories is some of the most valuable real estate on a per-acre basis in any community. As you watch the photos overlay one another, think of the number of people living, working, visiting, shopping, dining and celebrating in the Main Street district versus the same acreage of the big box store and its parking lot.

One of the most common complaints heard in many Main Street districts is that there is not enough parking nearby. In most Main Street districts, parking problems are problems of perception and/or poor parking management rather than a lack of available pavement. The big box stores have figured out that shoppers are willing to walk when they are offered something they want. When walking from the parking lot through a big box store and back to their cars, shoppers may walk the equivalent of laps through the nearby downtown, spend their hard-earned dollars and not complain. If people are not shopping downtown, a lack of pavement for parking is probably not the problem.

Valley 4th of July parade through Harrisonburg's Main Street district.

Valley 4th of July parade through Harrisonburg’s Main Street district. Photo credit: Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance.

Finally, it is almost painful to watch these historic commercial districts overlaid by big box stores. With a blink of an eye, all of the things that make Virginia’s historic commercial districts unique and treasured parts of their communities, the historic buildings, unique shops, amazing lofts, tasty restaurants, busy theaters, bustling offices, pocket parks, flowering baskets, farmers markets, celebration spaces and more, are replaced with a parking lot and big box store that looks like every other parking lot and big box store in America. Luckily, the photo overlays are for demonstration purposes only, and Virginia’s Main Street districts are open for business.

Crowdfunding Main Street

proper pie logoIn many communities, someone from out of town who is interested in starting a new business can turn to the local Main Street organization for help. The local Main Street organization can often provide square footage, rent and utility costs and introductions to owners of vacant and available storefronts. They can introduce the potential business owner to the Main Street business owners, service providers and local bankers. Most have a strong knowledge of the business start-up requirements (who to go to for a business license) and resources (local revolving loan funds or business development assistance programs).

Although most Main Street organizations do not have funds to invest in a new business, they can help encourage potential business owners to look at some of the various crowdfunding websites to help gauge local demand for the proposed products and services and to raise debt-free start-up capital.

Crowdfunding real estate development offers opportunities for the development, renovation or purchase of real estate assets on Main Street. Main Street Arkansas is experimenting with Kiva Zip, a crowdfunding platform that enables individuals to make direct loans to entrepreneurs. Loans can be made for as little as $5. Over time, as the loan is repaid, you get your money back, and you can then withdraw it or re-lend it to another entrepreneur.

Kickstarter is probably one of the most familiar crowd funding platforms on the Internet. It allows creative people to pitch their project or business ideas and ask for financial backing from the online community.

Project funding on Kickstarter is all-or-nothing because, as the theory goes, if you need $5,000, it is hard to complete your project with only $1,000. This requirement helps a potential business build a customer- or fan-base and provides a sort of market feasibility test of the idea. If enough people like the idea, they will fund it. Many different types of returns on investment are offered, but offering financial returns or equity is prohibited.

People contribute on Kickstarter because they are rallying around their friends’ projects, supporting people they have long admired or are inspired by a new idea. Backing a project is more than just giving someone money. It is supporting a dream to create something that the contributor wants to see exist in the world, or on Main Street.

Take for example, Proper Pie, a New Zealand-style, savory pie restaurant in a historic storefront in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond. Needing $15,000 to help them finish the installation of their commercial kitchen, the owners decided to launch a funding campaign on Kickstarter.

The owners offered various incentives for contributing including free pies (pick-up only, no mailing of pies), a punch on a frequent visitor card, logoed pens, coffee mugs, t-shirts, an opportunity to name a pie for a week and more. In less than 30 days, 318 people contributed a total of $15,836. One person contributed $1,500, but most of the contributions were small, with about 20 percent contributing $10, 32 percent contributing $25 and 22 percent contributing $50.

What is interesting here is that Proper Pie had not yet opened when it launched its Kickstarter campaign. Few, if any of the contributors, had probably ever tasted a New Zealand-style savory pie. Most of the contributors were not contributing because they knew and liked the pies from Proper Pie. They were buying into a vision of their community that included a New Zealand-style pie shop filling an empty storefront in the neighborhood where they live, work or visit. With no guarantee of success, they were willing to invest a little bit of their money into a stranger’s business because they liked and supported a vision for the development of their community. What does the vision for your Main Street include, and how are you going to help fund its development?

Virginia Main Street Awards Downtown Improvement Grants

VMS logoVMS recently awarded several Downtown Improvement Grants (DIG). These grants, of up to $25,000, help designated Main Street communities tackle special, one-time Main Street-related projects that need additional financial resources to become a reality. The awarded projects have specific economic restructuring outcomes and involve multiple community partners. This year, VMS received 14 competitive applications and awarded five grants, totaling $115,000. The awarded projects include the following:

  • Blackstone –A $25,000 DIG will help Downtown Blackstone Inc. install a wayfinding system for the Blackstone’s historic commercial district. Grant funds will assist in the fabrication and installation of 10 trailblazing signs at strategic locations throughout town and the replacement of six gateway signs located at each entrance into town. DIG funds will be matched by $25,000 from a USDA grant, $9,000 from the town and $9,500 of in-kind donations. VMS provided design assistance for the wayfinding system via its design services consultant, Frazier Associates.
  • Lynchburg – A $25,000 DIG will help Lynch’s Landing Foundation partner with the Lynchburg Office of Economic Development and the Region 2000 Small Business Development Center to develop and run a small business competition for businesses looking to start or expand in Lynchburg’s Central Business District. Three business competition winners will receive business start-up/expansion grants of up to $10,000 and marketing and media support.
  • Marion –A $25,000 DIG will help Marion Downtown! develop a façade enhancement grant program that requires participation in the Marion Downtown!’s award-winning business boot camp as a way of strengthening the skill sets of downtown business owners while improving the physical appearance of the Main Street district.
  • South Boston – A $20,000 DIG will help Destination Downtown South Boston develop a façade enhancement grant program that will provide matching grants of up to $5,000. In addition, the Main Street organization will develop a handbook to assist property owners in rehabilitating their properties and will host a forum that will allow property owners interested in rehabilitating their properties to meet one-on-one with design consultants for advice on their project.
  • Winchester – A $20,000 DIG will allow Winchester’s Old Town Development Board to provide matching façade improvement grants of up to $5,000. If property owners lack the resources to meet the 1:1 match requirement for the façade grant, they will be eligible to apply for commercial façade loans from the Winchester Economic Development Authority (EDA). The loans offer favorable repayment terms and are a useful alternative to the cash-matching requirement.

Marion Completes Fifth Round of “Pop Up” Marion Boot Camp

Participants celebrate graduation at “Pop Up Marion Round Five Small Business Boot Camp” March 4, 2014

Participants celebrate graduation at “Pop Up Marion Round Five Small Business Boot Camp” March 4, 2014

By now, you’ve probably heard of the success Marion Downtown! has had with its small business “Pop Up” Boot Camp entrepreneur program. If you have not, you are definitely missing out on all the excitement!

“Pop Up Marion” offers up to $5,000 for aspiring downtown entrepreneurs, offsetting startup expenses like rent and utilities for the first six months of operation, in exchange for those businesses committing to a strong mentorship program during those formative months.  Modeled after the trend in larger cities where businesses “pop up” in long-vacant spaces for a short time to create buzz and excitement, Marion’s program is more far-reaching. The success of Marion’s Pop Up program has generated excitement throughout Virginia and is the talk of many other designated Main Street communities.

“The object is not to have someone open for six months and close their doors,” said Marion’s Community and Economic Development Executive Director Ken Heath.  “It is to expand that idea and use the grant funds provided to us from Virginia Main Street and Wells Fargo, as well as to use training, along with our low-interest loan pool, as tools to long-term viability and success.”

Since the project started in the fall of 2012, our downtown has transformed dramatically. We have lowered our downtown vacancy rate from 17 percent to an astonishing 6.5 percent in less than two years. We have trained a total of 124 entrepreneurs, and 40 have graduated from the program since it began in 2012. We have sold four downtown buildings and filled eight storefronts. We have created 14 new businesses, as well as seven new indirect businesses. With the new businesses, we have added more than 80 new jobs to the community!” - Marion Downtown! Executive Director Olivia Hall

With the completion of the fifth round of Boot Camp, four entrepreneurs presented their business plans to a panel of judges in hopes of receiving grant funds to assist with starting their own business. One business has been selected in this round, Debra Parks and the New Horizons Counseling Center located on Lee Street in downtown Marion. Additionally, the three remaining businesses will continue working with the team on their business plans.

“We could not be more excited to have Debra’s business join the downtown Marion business family,” said Marion Downtown President James McNeil.  “This partnership between our organization, the town of Marion, Virginia Main Street, People In., USDA Rural Development and Wells Fargo will continue to offer similar opportunities because we are already planning another round in June 2013.”

The next round will be a four-week intensive program that will start the first week in June and will focus on generating more retail businesses in downtown, as well as focusing on facade improvements within downtown.

2014 Virginia Main Street Milestone Achievement Awards Announced

More than 90 downtown revitalization volunteers and professionals attended the Virginia Main Street Milestone Achievement Awards Luncheon on March 19  at Richmond’s historic Hippodrome Theater.

Main Street communities and organizations were recognized for achieving notable milestones in volunteer contribution, private investment and building rehabilitation. Destination Downtown South Boston received a Special Achievement Award and the Partnership for Warrenton Foundation was recognized for 25 years of membership in the Virginia Main Street program.

This year, you have been thinking outside of the box and using entrepreneurship as a keystone to successful downtown revitalization,” said Secretary Jones. “With entrepreneur development strategies like business boot camps and even an Ideaspace, you are bringing new ventures and amazing growth to your downtowns.” - Virginia Secretary of Commerce and Trade Maurice Jones

Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development Director Bill Shelton pointed to downtown progress through the numbers. “In the last five years, designated Main Street communities have sparked more than $217 million in private investment in their districts.” Shelton continued, “As a result, last year, there was a net collective gain of 453 jobs across the 25 Main Street downtown districts.”

Entrepreneurship is key to revitalizing our communities. Given the proper support, anybody can pursue their dream of starting a business. Communities that are participating in Virginia Main Street are in a unique position to leverage their organizational skills, contacts and methodology to ignite the entrepreneurial spirit in their communities.” – Keynote Speaker Toan Nguyen, co-founder of Impact Investment Consulting, C’ville Central, Community Investment Collaborative and C’ville Coffee

Check out photos from the event here.

Below is a list of award recipients:

Volunteerism Milestone Achievement Awards
1,000 Volunteer Hours
Believe in Bristol

5,000 Volunteer Hours
Farmville Downtown Partnership
St. Paul Main Street

15,000 Volunteer Hours
Altavista On Track

20,000 Volunteer Hours
Luray Downtown Initiative Inc.
Marion Downtown!
Destination Downtown South Boston

25,000 Volunteer Hours
Berryville Main Street

30,000 Volunteer Hours
Culpeper Renaissance Inc.

35,000 Volunteer Hours
Old Towne Development Board (Winchester)

50,000 Volunteer Hours
Downtown Franklin Association

85,000 Volunteer Hours
Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance

95,000 Volunteer Hours
Lynch’s Landing Foundation

100,000 Volunteer Hours
Staunton Downtown Development Association

Private Investment Milestone Achievement Awards
$5 Million in Private Investment
Abingdon Main Street and the town of Abingdon

$20 Million in Private Investment
Martinsville Uptown Revitalization Association and the city of Martinsville

$25 Million in Private Investment
Berryville Main Street and the town of Berryville

$55 Million in Private Investment
Culpeper Renaissance Inc. and the town of Culpeper
Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance and the city of Harrisonburg
Staunton Downtown Development Association and the city of Staunton

$110 Million in Private Investment
Lynch’s Landing Foundation and the city of Lynchburg

Building Improvement Milestone Achievement Awards
250 Building Projects
Destination Downtown South Boston and the town of South Boston

Special Achievement Awards
Destination Downtown South Boston - for its leadership in partnering with the town of South Boston and Rehab Development, Inc. in the conversion of South Boston’s last remaining tobacco warehouse into 27 new market rate apartments.

25 Years of Main Street
Partnership for Warrenton Foundation and the town of Warrenton

The Virginia Main Street program, managed by the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, provides assistance and training to help communities increase the economic vitality of their downtown commercial districts. Virginia Main Street uses the National Main Street model to help communities revitalize their downtowns by focusing on their unique heritage and attributes. The program helps communities implement a comprehensive revitalization strategy that creates economic growth and pride in downtowns.

Harrisonburg is named 2014 Great American Main Street semifinalist

gamsaCongratulations to the city of Harrisonburg, which was recently named by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of the top 10 semifinalists for the 2014 Great American Main Street Awards (GAMSA). The semifinalists have demonstrated their ability to preserve their unique history while creating and maintaining vibrant, successful commercial districts that serve as the heart of their communities.

Each year, the National Trust Main Street Center recognizes exceptional Main Street communities whose successes serve as a model for comprehensive commercial district revitalization. These award-winning communities have demonstrated proven success in using the Main Street Four Point Approach® to create economic vitality, a unique sense of place and a strong commitment to the community by all stakeholders.

According to the GAMSA website, downtown Harrisonburg is a dramatically different place today than it was a decade ago, and much of that transformation can be attributed to Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance’s (HDR) impressive work in the community. For the last four years, readers of the local newspaper have named Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance “The Best Use of Taxpayer Money.” The reason is clear. In their 11-year history, HDR has logged more than 85,000 volunteer hours while generating $55 million in private investment, and they have no plans of slowing down. In coming years, watch out for a new hotel and conference center, an urban park and an updated brand for the organization. As local developer Barry Kelly stated, “The heart of our city is beating vibrantly again.”

Four other communities in Virginia have been named Great American Main Streets: Culpeper (2012), Lynchburg (2006), Manassas (2003) and Staunton (2002).

The winners of the 2014 Great American Main Street Awards will be announced at the opening plenary of the 2014 National Main Streets Conference in Detroit on May 18.

Good luck, Harrisonburg. We are rooting for you!

Entire block of Bristol’s Main Street district to become boutique hotel

Over the next 18 months, an entire block of Bristol’s Main Street district will be transformed into a destination hospitality complex centered around a new 70-room luxury boutique hotel called the Sessions Hotel.

The project by Creative Boutique Hotels (CBH), which includes Hal Craddock, Cornerstone Hospitality and MB Contractors, will span nearly the entire 800 block of State Street and 15 Commonwealth Avenue, encompassing the properties that currently include the Owen Equipment building and adjacent parking lot, KSS, Jobbers Candy and the Mill.

The Sessions Hotel will feature 70 upscale hotel rooms, a spa and a restaurant. The hotel will also boast a music stage and green space venues, a roof top garden café, and roof top bar. The project will blend historic architecture with new construction, similar to Craddock’s approach developing the acclaimed Craddock Terry Hotel and Event Center in Lynchburg’s Main Street district, which consistently maintains an 80 percent occupancy rate year round and has won numerous awards.

Construction will begin on the Sessions Hotel by March, with a projected opening date of Spring 2015.

CBH will be investing $20 million in capital expenditures to the property. In keeping with the local theme of the project, much of the skilled detail work will be done at the hands of local artists and trades people. Sessions Hotel will ultimately employ 70 FTEs, and guarantees a return of $1.2 million over the next five years in sales taxes alone.” – Andrew Trivette Bristol, Virginia Assistant City Manager

Creative Boutique Hotels is a Virginia-based partnership focused on the development of boutique hotels in small markets and on the repurposing of historic buildings, as well as new construction. The partnership combines the talents of three industry leaders. Cornerstone Hospitality conducts market analyses, determines viability and makes recommendations for property size, styling and operations management. Hal Craddock of Craddock Cunningham Architectural Partners specializes in the vision, design and repurposing of historic structures. MB Contractors provides a solid foundation of construction costs and craftsmanship.

In addition to the Sessions Hotel, other current boutique hotel projects include the expansion of their existing Craddock Terry Hotel in Lynchburg, the revitalization and expansion of the John Randolph Hotel in South Boston, the adaptive reuse of One Mill Place in Farmville and the feasibility, design and construction of a ground up boutique hotel called the Rutherfoord Hotel in Crozet.


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