City Council has mixed reaction to EDA's downtown vibrancy strategies

rarriaza@vagazette.com

After being developed over the course of three facilitated workshops this past summer, Williamsburg Economic Development Authority Chairman Adam Steely presented a downtown vibrancy implementation strategy to City Council at its Monday work session.

As part of this year’s budget, council set aside $150,000 in funds for the EDA to put their plans for downtown vibrancy into action after a roll-out strategy is developed and approved. Steely said the board settled on three main areas of focus: a grant program for new and existing downtown events, placemaking elements and the creation of a downtown business association.

According to Steely’s presentation, the EDA proposes putting $50,000 into a grant program to enhance existing downtown events, $60,000 for placemaking elements such as string lighting and a pop-up retail and food pavilion, and $40,000 toward staffing and legal costs for the creation of a merchant’s association overseeing all downtown businesses.

Council was enthusiastic about some aspects of the plan, such as the event grant program, but wanted to wait for more information about other ideas before moving forward with the funding.

“Now that we’ve gone through this downtown vibrancy study, there’s aspects of it that we need to start implementing, otherwise, we might as well stick this study on the shelf and it would be a waste of resources,” said Vice Mayor Doug Pons.

Steely explained the $50,000 event grant program will take already-successful events in the city’s downtown, such as An Occasion for the Arts, the Winter Blues Jazz Festival and Colonial Williamsburg’s Fourth of July celebration, to the next level by providing additional funding. He also mentioned the creation of new downtown events, such as a New Year’s Eve celebration and a tailgate event in the parking lot of the Triangle Building during the College of William and Mary’s football season.

“We were looking at the amount of money that, with our collective experience, it would take to significantly make a difference,” Steely said. “We couldn’t get really invested in more than four or five ongoing events, but we could work to change the way that the event looks and feels to the public. If you don’t have in the neighborhood of $8,000 to $10,000 to effect some change, you’re not going to be able to make a dramatic impact.”

In terms of placemaking elements, the EDA suggested allocating funds toward new benches, planters and string lights to be placed above two blocks of Prince George Street between North Henry Street and Armistead Avenue. Steely said the EDA is still in the process of meeting with electrical consultants, but that they are looking into installing poles across the two-block radius to hang the lights overhead.

Steely said the lights would not only attract more visitors to downtown businesses after dark, but would also make pedestrians feel safer.

“(College students) said they did not feel comfortable walking around our downtown area because there was insufficient ambient lighting,” he said. “There’s so much activity that if we could keep the comfort level of our residents, visitors and college community really high about engaging with our downtown, economic spin-off from that comfort should be dramatic.”

Mayor Paul Freiling agreed that more lighting downtown would generally be welcomed, but thought the installation of poles would be visually unappealing.

“I like the idea of light creating comfort and safety for people at night, it tells people that we’re open for business and it creates an additional sense of energy, but I’m not a big fan of poles in the streets, and I’m not even sure that this is the right kind of lighting,” Freiling said. “We don’t want it to be visually detracting during the day.”

Council also expressed some hesitation around the creation of a downtown business association, saying its establishment may have some unintended consequences with the Merchants Square Association that is already in place.

“There are a lot of ‘silos’ in town, and I’d hate to think that we would participate in creating another silo that may run afoul with the Merchants Square Association, even though they may be co-mingling,” said Pons.

City Council agreed to hold its vote on granting the $150,000 in downtown vibrancy implementation funds until this Thursday’s regular monthly meeting.

At Monday’s work session, Council also heard a quarterly tourism update report from Bob Harris, interim executive director of the Williamsburg Tourism Council. There, he highlighted recent efforts including the formation of the Tourism Council and increased marketing efforts.

Next meeting

Where: City Council Chambers, Stryker Center, 412 N. Boundary St.

When: 2 p.m. Thursday

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

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