After being asked to lead the charge to become a Virginia Main Street community by City Council last month, the city’s Economic Development Authority heard a presentation from a program representative at its meeting Wednesday.
As part of this year’s budget, City Council set aside $150,000 for an action plan developed by the EDA to improve downtown Williamsburg. One of the main pillars is the creation of a downtown business association, which would serve as a merchant’s association for all businesses in the city’s downtown area.
EDA members agreed that the Virginia Main Street program could serve as a blueprint for that group.
Kyle Meyer, community revitalization specialist with the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, explained that Virginia Main Street works with more than 100 communities across the state to revitalize their historic downtown districts by fostering collaboration among local merchants and accentuating each communities unique characteristics.
“We’re as far southwest as Bristol, as east as Gloucester, as north as Winchester and we’re moving onto the Eastern Shore,” Meyer said.
When asked by Meyer about how they would like to see downtown Williamsburg evolve, EDA members stressed the importance of connectivity to the rest of the city.
“When everyone thinks of downtown they think of Williamsburg, but it’s not necessarily the city center. It could be, but it’s not, traditionally,” board member Robby Willey said. “There could be more connectivity from down in Merchants Square to campus to beyond.”
“I’d personally like it to feel a little bit more livable; there are lots of residences, but there are not a lot of things that residents need and do in their daily behavior,” EDA Chairman Adam Steely said. “There’s entertainment and a little bit of retail, but it doesn’t feel like, to me, a downtown where you can tell that there are apartments above every store.”
Meyer said Williamsburg can join the program by first applying to be an affiliate community, which would provide access to Main Street workshops and information sessions, organizational assistance and a grant program.
To become a Main Street community affiliate, the downtown business association would need to be a distinct organization with its own governing body. Most local Main Street groups take the form of a nonprofit with its own board of directors and organization, promotion, design and economic vitality subcommittees, he said.
“We’ve been charged by City Council to investigate the process and perhaps to be a catalyst in moving it forward, but eventually it has to be its own animal,” EDA Vice Chairman Rick Overy said.
Fourth of July event
Also at the meeting, Steely discussed early plans for a new downtown event for the Fourth of July later this year.
He said the EDA’s goal is to complement existing downtown Fourth of July programming organized by Colonial Williamsburg with an event that would draw crowds during the early afternoon. Steely’s pitch to the board was for an event that would evoke an “Americana Fourth of July.”
No official plans have been made yet, but Steely said he’s gotten tentative interest from Colonial Williamsburg to bring in an outside company to tether a hot air balloon on the lawn of the Dewitt Wallace Decorative Art Museum and offer hot air balloon rides, taking attendees 40 to 60 feet above downtown Williamsburg from noon to 4 p.m.
He also expressed interest in decorating CW’s Summer Breeze concert stage with red, white and blue bunting and bringing in barbershop quartets or folk and bluegrass bands to play live music during the event. Attendees could also participate in an egg toss competition and purchase drinks and snacks for a nickel.
“The plan is to bring in a vendor to provide popcorn, cotton candy, lemonade and soft drinks," Steely said. “From noon to 4, we don’t really want to be in direct competition with those restaurants or food trucks providing lunch opportunities downtown, but we want to offer drinks and snacks for a nickel, because it’s Fourth of July and it’s old-time America.”
Steely said that $2,500 is tentatively budgeted for the food costs, and the event could cost a total of $10,000 from the EDA’s downtown vibrancy special event grant fund.
He also said the EDA could work with a volunteer organization, which would handle ticketing the balloon rides and organize the egg toss game in exchange for keeping the proceeds from the event.
“I love the idea in my head of getting a Coca-Cola for a nickel, taking a hot air balloon ride and having a red, white and blue-bunted stage with some kind of traditional American music,” Steely said. “It seems like a really great fit in starting to own the Fourth of July in the way that Williamsburg should own it.”
The EDA board unanimously signed off on the concept for the Fourth of July event, and Steely said he would continue to develop the idea with Colonial Williamsburg representatives.
Arriaza can be reached at 757-790-9313 or on Twitter @rodrigoarriaza0.