Often when I meet new people, they tell me about what downtown used to be like 15 years ago. They talk about how empty it was and marvel at our night-and-day transformation. The city and private developers have been hard at work investing almost $90 million downtown, and dedicated volunteers have given more than 90,000 hours of their time to the revitalization effort. Almost every week I am contacted by someone who wants to open a business here.
So, does this mean the revitalization is done?
Nope. We’re not even close.
But our revitalization effort is shifting; so much so that I am not sure I want to keep calling it “revitalization.” No longer is HDR consumed by economic distress and widespread vacancies. We’ve got other things on our minds. As downtown experiences greater success, here’s what we are thinking about:
What in the World is Going on With Retail? I don’t think anyone has this figured out. At a time when big-box stores are struggling and Amazon is opening bricks-and-mortar stores, the pressure is on for retailers. Can we adopt a data-driven approach to help retailers offer the right mix of products and services so they can capture the dollars that people are spending elsewhere?
Increasingly, customers in the U.S. are asking, “why would I come downtown when I can shop online?” Instead of seeing this as a threat, I can see an opportunity for us. National trends show people are seeking more than transactions – they want unique destinations, connections with others, and distinct experiences. This is what Main Street does best. It’s our wheelhouse. What makes downtown a sought-after destination is that we aren’t “Anywhere, USA.” Our mix of independent businesses is our biggest attraction and HDR is focused on helping them prosper. Can every downtown business find a way to tap into “experience-based” retail?
Diversity: The incredible diversity of Harrisonburg isn’t widely reflected in the faces and places downtown. We need to explore – do all community members feel welcome? Do products and services appeal to a wide enough customer base? Are there entrepreneurs from diverse communities who want to open businesses downtown? How can HDR become a more diverse organization itself?
Marketing Downtown Beyond Our Immediate Borders: With the coming of Hotel Madison and Shenandoah Valley Conference Center and downtown park, how will we connect their visitors to the rest of downtown? How can we attract people within an hour’s drive away? Answers to these questions will help us build greater foot traffic for local businesses.
We’re taking a step back to consider where we are going as an organization. What needs to happen to sustain our momentum? What are the partnerships and more sophisticated projects that we should be involved in? What is the “right direction” for downtown? And, because we are a community-based organization that is led by volunteer board and committee members, we get to ask you to be a part of it. Over the next year, we’ll be holding forums among Friends of Downtown, community groups, and partners to talk about what’s next for HDR. We’ll be launching a listening tour as well to hear new perspectives and put downtown Harrisonburg on the path to becoming the most inclusive Main Street in America.
Our fundamental mission to support and enhance the downtown isn’t going to change. We just are going to be more strategic, more inclusive, and more focused on economic development. Downtown isn’t done. There is still more work to do. We have many new opportunities ahead and we are going to figure out what’s next together.