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The sun sets over the steeples in Hagerstown.
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The war memorial in front of the Botetourt County Courthouse in Fincastle.
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The sun sets over the steeples in Hagerstown.
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The Arts Centre in Martinsburg.
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Ally Buchman, co-owner of the Potomac Bread Company.
Downtown is the heart of the community, where the newspaper, the post office, the banks, the diners are – the commerce and trade that keep the community alive.
In many Blue Ridge towns, and across the country, downtown nearly died. With the coming of suburbs and shopping malls, bedroom communities and industrial parks, downtowns in many places turned into rows of boarded-up storefronts, bypassed by interstates and the quick convenience of exit-ramp fast food and gas stations.
But downtowns didn’t disappear entirely, and programs such as the National Trust Main Street Center have made it possible for many small towns to reinvigorate the hearts of their communities. Today, regional downtowns have become shopping and eating destinations, arts centers and business hubs, draws for travelers who want to park the car and walk the rest of the weekend, who want to experience the real and the historic, not the contrived and the homogenous. Farmers’ markets are thriving side-by-side with high-end art galleries; entrepreneurs are restoring falling-down buildings for new use. And for natives and newcomers both, a desire for neighborhood – and less expensive commutes – has inspired the creation of new residential centers in revamped warehouses and storefronts.
We put out a call to the region to find out what’s going on in our communities, and then took a whirlwind tour of five of them. On the following pages are word-and-image snapshots from around the region, and in our next five issues we’ll be hitting the sidewalks, exploring great downtowns in the Blue Ridge.
—Cara Ellen Modisett
Four Days, Five Towns
At one end of the population spectrum, 350; at the other, 39,000. In each, centuries cohabit – a general store-turned-florist, funeral parlor-turned-bed-and-breakfast, bank-turned-bookstore, post office-turned-bank. Teenagers and retirees alike order milkshakes at original soda fountains and watch movies in restored art deco theaters.
Interstate and pioneer roads intersect; the ghosts of Civil War soldiers and hoopskirted socialites meet and greet somewhere behind the present-day native entrepreneurs and out-of-state come-heres who are restoring, adapting and celebrating what’s always been here, breathing new life into the unique downtowns that make up the region.
Troutville, Va.: The Thriftway
James Shockley runs the meat department.
“I’ve cut meat for 50 years,” he says, for Farm Fresh, Piggly Wiggly, IGA, Allied Foods. He’s been here at the Thriftway for 13 years, and helps Margaret Hatcher when she needs an extra hand up front. She’s worked here for 39 years; she grew up in Troutville, went to school within sight of the store’s first location and decided then she wanted to work there.
“Graduated in June,” she remembers, “got married in August. We were married 51 years and he passed away eight years ago.”
It’s about community here. “The customers, and the relationship with [owner] Bland Painter and [his daughter] Paige Weddell – it’s more or less family. We’re not kin, but you know.”
She calls the customers by name. “I’ve seen kids grow up, have their own kids.”
The grocery isn’t anywhere near the size of a Kroger or Ukrop’s, but it carries all the essentials, and Shockley’s meat case includes pork chops, tilapia, beef stir fry, London broil, sea scallops, tuna steak and meat loaf mix. Shockley explains his loyal customer base: “I treat them right and I’m honest with them and I give them good stuff.”
“And he preaches to ’em on the side,” adds Hatcher. Shockley is an associate pastor at Faith Baptist and a preacher with the Rescue Mission.
Troutville Town Park
“This park is probably the heartbeat of the town,” says park manager Cecil Bingham, who moved to Troutville from Knoxville in 1976 with his wife Kay, a native of Iowa. The park used to be a ballpark starting back in the 1940s – “it got neglected for a while.”
Today, with the help of volunteers, the park now has a playground, a big field for sports, picnic shelters and a caboose that’s being restored.
“My wife takes care of the flowers. The mayor thinks more of her than he does me,” Bingham says. “She comes down here at six in the morning.”
A Studied Transformation: Buchanan, Va.
Harry Gleason was a graduate student at Virginia Tech in 1994. In Buchanan, buildings were near collapse on Main Street. Vacancy was 85 percent, and one building in town was listed on the national historic register.
Today, one building on Main Street is vacant. The private sector has invested around $6.5 million restoring historic properties, and the town has the largest historic district in the county – 250 acres, with more than 250 properties.
The seeds of that transformation were planted when the Community Design Assistance Center at Virginia Tech conducted a yearlong study on the town, involving the citizens in a “participatory design” process and closing the year with recommendations based on the Main Street program model. Gleason, originally from Annapolis, Md., was the student who ran the study. Today he’s Buchanan’s downtown revitalization program manager.
“It really was a bit of a time bubble,” he says of the town in 1994. He trades waves with the driver of a passing black pickup truck.
His recommendation, at the end of the study? “The town should look at its historic assets as assets, not as liabilities as they had in the past.”
Why did it work?
“They were open to suggestions that were kind of in the opposite directions from the way things had been done,” Gleason says. One of the first things was to undo the damage that had been done in the last few decades.
“A good thing about the 1970s modernization is it was a lot of cosmetic cover-ups,” Gleason says. “So it was a lot of taking down and repairing damage” – removing dropped ceilings and restoring the tin ceilings still above them, for instance.
And: “Baby steps can make a difference over time.” Change came business by business, and involved not just beautification but the four tenets of the Main Street program – design, organization, promotion and economic restructuring. That meant encouraging a diversity of businesses – “the businesses that cater to a more diverse clientele are the ones that succeed.” It meant keeping pedestrian-friendly and auto-friendly business environments separate. It meant rethinking how buildings are used: for instance, keeping the library downtown and restoring two early 20th-century storefronts to house it. And creating a sort of business incubator in another huge old building that now houses several businesses (a florist, a gift shop, and soon to come, a pet groomer) that can more easily afford and use the large amount of space.
Mistakes are made, says Gleason, when communities try to change too much too quickly, “gut everything and start over.”
“You displace a lot of people,” he says. Here, where change was organic, one step at a time, “you can see layers of history, a lot of fingerprints on a project.”
Those fingerprints include the Buchanan Theater, built in 1914, closed since the flood of 1985 until it was restored by two residents, Dale and Gloria Carter. Today, it hosts school programs, church and daycare events, talent shows, live concerts and corporate meetings.
And movies too. Gleason goes upstairs and within a few minutes Cary Grant and Irene Dunne are on the screen in the opening scenes of “Penny Serenade.”
“Some of the older residents remember it being segregated,” he says.
The woman who used to play piano for the silent movies in the 1920s died just last year. “I think this building has a lot of collective memory.”
Admission is $5 for evening, $2 for matinees. Concessions are $1.
Gleason sometimes helps at the snack stand, and recounts his favorite kind of conversation:
“That’ll be $2.”
“Oh, this is your first time here?”
It was the funeral home for 38 years, though in a town the size of Buchanan, the funeral parlor doubled as a community center, hosting dances and other special events.
“We’ve had people come in and say their parents were married here,” says Maggi George. The house itself dates from much earlier; it was owned by Confederate Commodore William C. Whittle after the Civil War.
Originally from New Jersey, Maggi and her husband John (who was born in Ontario, Canada) moved here from the Tidewater area of Virginia and opened The House on Main Street (soon to be renamed the Rhein River Inn) in 2007 as a restaurant. They now operate a B&B here, “as of 10 days ago,” on the Friday we visited. Maggi serves up primarily German food, plus some dishes like her uncle’s Hungarian goulash and Irish lamb stew. Their guests include hoopskirted Daughters of the American Confederacy for high tea, high school students going to prom and students and teachers from the German department at Hollins University a few miles down U.S. 11 in Roanoke.
The furniture, dishes and linens are all as authentic as they can find – “if we walk into any antique store within 150 miles, they know us by name,” says Maggi.
The couple liked Buchanan because “it’s not charm in a museum kind of way,” as Maggi puts it. “People still live like that.”
Architecture of History: Fincastle, Va. and Martinsburg, W.Va.
Fincastle, Va., is the third of three towns making up Downtowns of Botetourt, along with Troutville and Buchanan. It’s an old town, incorporated in 1772, the county seat for Botetourt, and its center feels like a step back in time to that century. Lewis and Clark left from here for the lands of the Louisiana Purchase.
Today, it hosts festivals and art shows (it is in fact said to be the location of the first ever bluegrass festival, in 1965).
The drive from U.S. 11 into town, last along a stretch of Va. 630, is a pretty one. In the late afternoon, downtown is quiet and shadow and light play on the beautiful old stone buildings, the courthouse cannon and the ironwork.
civil war history is a big part of Martinsburg, the destination of next day’s drive. The town changed hands 50 times during the War Between the States. Today, it’s quieter, with block after block of old homes and storefronts I’d like to get back and explore with more time.
We park at the edge of downtown proper, near the Arts Centre, housed in Martinsburg’s 1895 Federal Building on West King Street. We wander through the Lutheran and Reformed Graveyard, 1786, many of whose occupants witnessed those turbulent times – birth and death dates of 1870, 1844, 1815, 1802, 1796 mark the graves, ivy wraps around trees and cicadas whirr.
We walk toward Queen Street, which feels like the core of downtown, a long street with a range of places: art galleries, churches, a hardware store, Roberts Jewelers “since 1918,” St. John’s Lutheran, with 1830-1884 carved in the cornerstone, Ed’s Sicilian Sandwich Shoppe (on the menu: “Hummus Amongus”). The old Merchants and Farmers Bank is now Corleone Ristorante, with its façade and old clock intact, and another part of that bank is now Southwood Books. Bookshelves crowd room after room, including the old vault, with its heavy metal door still attached (though standing wide open).
Patterson’s Drug Store has been here for 80 years, and still sells malted milkshakes, butterscotch sundaes, Hi-C fruit punch, lemon phosphate, root beer floats and sandwiches with the option of “plates.” What’s an egg and olive sandwich, and should I order it?
“The egg salad also has olives in it,” the waitress tells me. “That’d probably be better."
“White or wheat?”
Festival City: Hagerstown, Md.
“You gotta be impressed with a city park you can’t see across,” notes the photographer. Hagerstown’s beautiful city park, improved over the years, includes a concession stand, picnic shelters, duck and swan pond, a performance space, a small train and the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts. It feels like a small state park, right in the middle of the city.
Hagerstown is just about a half hour out of Martinsburg, just over the state line. This weekend is the city’s annual Augustoberfest – what we’re told is an particularly authentic German festival.
The night before the festival, we shoot photos from the top of a parking deck on Potomac Street, listening to the sounds of drums, harmonica and Hammond organ waft up from an outdoor concert in the Maryland Theatre courtyard below.
Hagerstown is in the midst of a continuing, enthusiastic revitalization. With Washington, D.C. not far off and a healthy incoming and outgoing commuter population, the broken windows and leaking roofs of downtown’s buildings are being bought, repaired, restored and turned into great locations, including Duffy’s, in a former office building. Today, it’s a high-ceilinged, happening restaurant with an eclectic menu (I try crab and asparagus spring rolls and some of the fanciest fried green tomatoes I’ve ever seen, and they put together a pretty good-looking vegan sampler for the photographer) and a bar downstairs with live music, an outdoor patio and a big-city ambience. As we drive around the neighboring blocks, even late, people are out and about, sitting on front porches, talking.
We are overnighting at the Wingrove Manor B&B, blocks away from downtown, a beautiful Victorian place owned by Candy Winton and her husband Ken, a Scotland native. Long conversations and delicious breakfasts both make the stay a good one.
Saturday is festival day, involving 1,300 sandwich rolls, 1,000-plus bratwursts and a lot of beer, and we head for Augustoberfest.
Festivals are a big deal in Hagerstown, and return lot to the community in terms of dollars. “The pageant for Miss Maryland has been in Hagerstown for 30 years,” says Tom Riford, president and CEO of the Hagerstown-Washington County CVB. That’s a half million a year into the local economy. The annual JFK ultra marathon puts in an estimated $350,000 in one weekend. “The more things that happen together, the better it is for everybody,” says Riford. “Some cities call it a critical mass – the number of restaurants, number of shops, number of parking spaces.
“Without festivals that attract out-of-towners, we wouldn’t have the amenities that improve quality of life for locals.”
A sort of whoop comes from the musicians performing on the other side of the tent. “And you get to see men in lederhosen make noises like that.” Away from the party, there’s lots going on in the city, maybe not as flashy, but to Hagerstown, just as exciting. Riford, along with Kathy Maher, the city’s director of planning, takes us on a walkabout.
“I’m a historical preservation sort of a planner,” says Maher, who came to Hagerstown from a job in Williamsburg, Va. Here, too, businesses and organizations are taking the old and making them new. One of the biggest recent catalysts has been the University System of Maryland establishing a regional higher education center in Hagerstown – a $13.5 million investment in a former hotel and department store that was vacant for decades. The city offered the building to the state and it was renovated into a center offering 20 educational programs bringing students into the downtown mix.
Not far away: An arts high school is moving into another old office building and will open in 2009 with 300 students, a black box theater, visual arts, music, and a dance studio in the old Elks Club ballroom.
The building next door is under renovation for condos and commercial spaces. Just up the street is the 1915 Maryland Theatre.
“It was an eyelash away from being torn down after the fire [of 1974],” says Riford. Today it sees around 12,000 visitors each year. B.B. King’s name is at the top of the marquee.
One success story is the Potomac Bead Company, owned by a young husband and wife, Nathan and Ally Buchman. They’ve been open three years, moved into a former department store in spring of 2007, and now have franchises in Fort Myers, Fla. and Glasgow, Scotland, with more due to open, including one in Philadelphia in 2010.
The building dates from the late 1800s, and has its original wood floors and exposed brick walls. “We were pulling down newspapers from 1930 in random closets,” says Ally.
“We think downtown is a creative space for growth and development.” As for the shop location, she loves “the size, the kind of grandness of it.”
Plus, “we look out and see a park.”
For more on regional downtowns, visit BlueRidgeCountry.com.
When you go
- Downtowns of Botetourt: Troutville, Buchanan and Fincastle
- Martinsburg-Berkeley County Visitors Bureau
- Hagerstown-Washington County Convention & Visitors Bureau 888-257-2600
- Wingrove Manor B&B, Hagerstown