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Fredericksburg: A new Main Street community

Date published: 6/12/2013

DOWNTOWNS have been in free fall for decades, starting with city dwellers' post-World War II yearning for a place with trees and a backyard, where everything would be new and shiny and all the kids would be above average. Families moved to the suburbs. Department stores, grocers, movie theaters, and all the rest followed. Downtowns decayed.

Now, there is evidence of renewed life. Many core cities and towns are growing faster than the 'burbs. Empty storefronts are being filled by retailers. New homes are being built atop the bones of dilapidated structures.

In the midst of all this, Fredericksburg has taken a step toward making its already attractive downtown more viable. The announcement last week that the city has been accepted into the Virginia Main Street program is a hopeful sign.

The program's goal is to nurture downtown business districts. The city was part of Main Street back in the mid-1980s, when the new mall in Spotsylvania, among other things, was turning downtown into a ghost town. The project helped do things like get rid of overhead utility wires and concrete sidewalks, fill vacant storefronts, and make downtown more pedestrian-friendly. Eventually, though, the local effort ran into financial and management problems, and the city dropped out, deciding to take the DIY approach. Whether that's worked out is subject for debate, but re-entry into the statewide group certainly shows that the city is looking for downtown solutions.

The most important thing now is choosing the right executive director for Fredericksburg's program. The first-year a budget will be $130,000, with the city providing $70,000, another $35,000 to come from the Economic Development Authority, and the rest from private money. (A special downtown tax district, like one that Staunton has successfully employed, was nixed by business owners.)

So, when the local Main Street board of directors chooses an executive director, probably this fall, that person's salary and a small amount for support staff will eat up most of the $130,000. It will be up to the person hired to find ways, with assistance from the state organization, to make downtown more economically viable. The right person can take our beautiful, historic center to another level. The wrong one could doom the Main Street program here.

The board needs to hire the right leader, someone with vision and the ability to work with a diverse group that is not without some fractious personalities. And then it needs to step back and let that person lead our downtown forward.

For decades, about all that was growing in many cities were weeds in the sidewalk cracks. That's changing. Virginia Main Street can help Fredericksburg be part of that change.