City EDA discusses downtown vibrancy rollout strategy

The city’s Economic Development Authority discussed a timeframe for its downtown vibrancy rollout strategy over the next nine months, and approved a no net-loss tax incentive for the Ace Hardware store relocating to the Monticello Shopping Center at a meeting Tuesday.

Earlier this summer, the board began to discuss ways to improve visitation to downtown shops and events with a series of workshops facilitated by a consultant. The EDA’s goal throughout the planning process has been to come up with a list of definite downtown revitalization milestones that the group will implement before the end of the current fiscal year on June 30, 2019.

The EDA also expects to develop a budget and timeline for a downtown vibrancy roll-out strategy to present to City Council, which allocated $150,000 toward improving downtown vibrancy in this fiscal year’s operating budget.

Since its last meeting in August, the EDA has budgeted $50,000 in grants to leverage special events and $60,000 to placemaking, which would be split between $10,000 going toward funding a pop-up pavilion and $50,000 in street enhancements. The board also hopes to establish a downtown business association before the end of the fiscal year, and would recommend allocating $25,000 toward hiring a downtown vibrancy coordinator and $15,000 anticipated to go toward legal, financial and organizational fees.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the board discussed an implementation strategy that would include expanding holiday decor, putting up string lighting and more signage and the forming a downtown business association. The EDA expects to present its finalized recommendations to City Council in October.

EDA Vice-Chair Rick Overy, who led the planning for the downtown business association, said he’ll meet with Colonial Williamsburg and other downtown stakeholders to gauge interest in the idea throughout this month. Following approval from City Council next month, Overy hopes to meet with downtown businesses and the existing Merchants Square Association, and to determine staffing needs for such an organization by the end of the year.

After Council, Colonial Williamsburg, the Merchants Square Association and downtown business owners sign off on the planned association next April, Overy hopes to launch the downtown business association in June 2019.

“One of our goals was to fast-track this and get it done inside of this fiscal year, and I think that this is an impressive but fairly realistic schedule of getting it done,” said Overy.

Board member and Virginia Beer Company co-founder Robby Willey was in charge of developing a timeline for placemaking efforts, which he said would attract more visitors and locals to the heart of the city’s downtown.

“We want visitors and residents to feel as though they’ve reached the city of Williamsburg when they’re (downtown),” Willey said. “They’ll want to stay and see what’s next.”

The board’s first step, he said, should be to take stock of downtown decorations that the city already has for the upcoming holiday season before expanding on it in November with the help of a downtown vibrancy coordinator.

Last year, the city’s Public Works Department placed holiday decor on Prince George Street, Boundary Street and Armistead Avenue, according to Economic Development Director Michele Mixner DeWitt. At the meeting, the board agreed that holiday decor this year should extend from Henry Street up to the corner of Richmond Road and Scotland Street.

The board was also enthusiastic about putting string lighting above downtown streets, which they said would bring people in, promote safety during the darker winter months and be the first big example of vibrancy implementation that would be visible to the public.

“I hope that we push hard on this because the other thing that I sense is as I talk to citizens is that they’re ready for action,” Overy said. “I think it’s incumbent upon this body to start showing some results from this two-year study, and I think this is one way that we can really move things forward.”

The board hopes to turn on all the string lights at the same time on Dec. 31, which would be celebrated with a new downtown New Year’s Eve kick-off event celebrating the installation. EDA members tentatively agreed to put up string lighting on Prince George Street, extending from Henry Street up to the corner of Scotland Street and Richmond Road near Green Leafe Cafe, Paul’s Deli and the College Delly.

“If we can successfully demonstrate a holiday roll-out, then it’s not only going to look good for the public with an action item that they can see, but it’s also a proof of concept that it works and ties the area together, and then you want to do it again for spring and the summertime and the Fourth of July,” said Steely.

Moving into next spring, the board hopes to install bike racks, planters and benches around downtown.

After going into closed session, the board reconvened and unanimously approved a no-net-loss tax incentive for up to $50,000 over five years for the relocation of Peninsula Ace Hardware’s Richmond Road location to the Monticello Shopping Center later this year.

Arriaza can be reached at 757-790-9313 or on Twitter @rodrigoarriaza0.

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