Lynchburg, Virginia

| 2006 Great American Main Street Award® Winner | Posted: 6/5/2006

In the 10 years that Lynch's Landing has been around, a lot of people have taken interest in Lynchburg. Maybe they read about this Central Virginian city in Southern Living when planning a weekend getaway or maybe they noticed it highlighted on Travelocity.com's Local Secrets, Big Finds section or on the Discovery Channel. Regardless of how people tune into Lynchburg, they can't help but be struck by how much it has to offer. Perhaps what isn't obvious is that it hasn't always been this way.

Today, this downtown located along the banks of the James River and nestled at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains has a plethora of historic and natural attractions. The revitalization has included heavy investment in streetscaping and reclamation of the riverfront to create a city that is not only beautiful but also attractive to investors.   Private-public alliances have moved many new projects forward, such as Amazement Square, an interactive children's museum; Riverviews Artspace, an artist live-work-gallery space; Dance Theatre; Bluffwalk Hotel; City Lofts; and the Academy of Fine Arts.

Working with the Regional Convention and Visitor's Bureau has helped get the word out and attract visitors downtown to enjoy the many new amenities and year-round events. With the guidance of a city-funded and supported "Downtown and Riverfront Master Plan" and a solid Main Street organization, Lynch-burg has seen $69 million in investment since 2001; and it shows.

"As we expand our Lynchburg facilities… we will be recruiting new employees from all over the United States. An important part of recruitment is highlighting Lynchburg as an attractive place to work and live," says Steve Blickenstaff, AREVA's vice president of human resources and facilities. "The ongoing revitalization of the downtown is an important feature we can use to attract a quality workforce."

With an annual work plan packed with more than 40 projects, a calendar filled with 32 events, four staff members, a membership that has tripled in five years, almost 1,500 volunteers who dedicate more than 10,000 hours to the Main Street program, and a budget that has grown to $1.35 million from $339,000 in 2000, it is no shock that Lynchburg, as well as Lynch's Landing, has found its way onto many people's radar screens. 

Refusing to Float Away

Ten years may seem like a short time for such big accomplishments, but the momentum in Lynchburg had been building since the 1980s. Retail competition popped up along the outskirts of downtown in the 1950s and began luring away many of the businesses. Then five floods ravaged this riverfront district – the most recent in 1985 – which contributed to a reluctance to invest there. But some people were loathe to give up and initiated a few important projects.

A retail and office building was constructed next to city hall and the farmers market was renovated. Two organizations championed for the downtown: Lynch's Ferry Authority, which was charged with developing the riverfront; and Central Lynchburg, Inc., a merchants association. The two merged after realizing they were competing for the same resources and collaborated mostly on events until 2000 when city leaders committed to revitalizing the downtown and successfully applied to join the Virginia Main Street program.

The master plan developed in 2000 affirmed the city's commitment to reestablishing the downtown as the focal point for residents, businesses, and tourists and outlined the necessary public improvements and catalyst projects to make that happen. The comprehensive plan focused on emphasizing a pedestrian-oriented environment, leveraging the river and surrounding residential historic districts, developing downtown housing, and creating incentives to spark new investment. It has redirected new construction away from the flood plain and has made hardscape and landscape improvements to mitigate future flooding and boost the confidence of investors.

The city has adopted mixed-use zoning ordinances to support the development of larger, white elephant structures, and has also approved a new sign ordinance to reinforce appropriate downtown signage. It has also committed to investing $1 million annually on revitalization for 20 years, including paying Lynch's Landing's executive director's salary.

To keep downtown bustling, many assistance programs for business owners have been developed. Lynch's Landing offers $10,000 annually to develop cooperative multimedia advertising opportunities for merchants. One merchant who took advantage of this perk noted that her holiday sales tripled from the previous year. By working with the Region 2000 Small Business Development Center, aspiring entrepreneurs and inspired business owners can polish their skills with one-on-one training and consultations on finance, marketing, expansion, and planning.

To help business recruitment and retention even more, the city has a full-time economic development manager, who also sits on the Economic Restructuring Committee. As a result, Lynchburg has celebrated 13 ribbon-cutting ceremonies for new businesses and also designated its 50th wireless Internet hot spot downtown. The last six years have seen a net increase of 356 jobs and 37 businesses.

Lynchburg resident Sarah Burnett sums up the breadth of assistance by relaying a conversation with a business owner who recently moved downtown. "Lynch's Landing is the 'go-to' group," said the owner. "Anything you need to know about downtown can be found out there."

Making Projects Happen

A perfect way to blend the progressiveness of the city with the quaint charm of its historic buildings has been to rehabilitate and adapt them for appropriate reuses. So far, 38 building rehabilitation projects have contributed to the preservation of the community's character and economy. With the support of preservation partners such as the Virginia Main Street program, the Lynchburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority, and local architectural firms, Lynchburg provides architectural design assistance and hosts design forums to ensure quality preservation of its buildings and compatible design of new construction projects.

The city has stepped in numerous times to fill the financial gap in various projects and ensure that they can go forward; it has also changed zoning ordinances to permit mixed-use development so larger structures have a better chance for reuse. As a CDBG entitlement community, Lynchburg has leveraged more than $670,000 of Community Development Block Grants to improve buildings and implement wayfinding signage and façade grants programs. 

To stimulate investment, Lynchburg's Main Street program hosts open houses and lists available properties online, where potential investors can plug in their property's sale price and use a calculator to determine the final cost of a rehab project after applying tax credits, grants, and other financial incentives. To help finance the rehabilitation of a historic shoe factory that will become the Bluffwalk Hotel, a 43-room boutique hotel with restaurant and conference center, the city applied for an $800,000 Economic Develop-ment Initiative Grant and a $3.2 million HUD-backed loan.

The city also provides no or low-interest loans, which helped bring $900,000 to the City Lofts housing project. Transportation Enhancement Grants were secured in 2005 to help fund the rehab of the old train depot and turn it into a restaurant and office space. Projects like these have helped triple the district's real estate tax base in six years.

When a significant building was threatened with demolition, although it had an interested developer, the city asked National Trust President Richard Moe to contact the building's owner, Jack Welsh of General Electric, Lynchburg's largest employer, to stop the demolition. The city then bought the entire block of properties and sold them to investors at below market value under the condition that they invest in them.

The developer mentioned above, Franklin Swann, took advantage of Enterprise Zone incentives, state historic tax credits, and a façade grant to make the renovation feasible and build a home for his marketing and promotions firm. Since then he has taken advantage of Lynch's Landing's cooperative advertising perks and business assistance workshops. He has also worked with the Main Street program to develop a partnership with a downtown caterer to convert part of his space into a banquet hall for weekend events. This has supplied much-needed space for event use and supplemented his business income when the building is not in use.

Lynch's Landing manages the downtown's largest parking garage and has witnessed a sharp increase in downtown activity by watching its 2001 occupancy of 73 percent mushroom to 100 percent in 2004, with a growing waiting list. This serves not only as an indicator of downtown's popularity but has also proven to be a smart business decision as the Main Street program supplements its annual budget with revenues that annually exceed $200,000. 

Engaging People

Since 2001, a wide variety of special events has attracted more than 446,000 visitors who have spent more than $21,858,900 in Lynchburg's historic commercial district. The events in 2005 alone brought the organization more than $800,000. Lynch's Landing also makes a point of sharing the wealth. It invites local nonprofits to help produce its Friday Cheers summer concert series in exchange for a portion of the revenue. This can be significant as Friday Cheers attracts close to 3,000 people each evening, and nets $500,000 in annual revenue. Lynch's Landing uses the city's Special Event Grant Program, which supports many downtown events by making them eligible for city in-kind sponsorship services, which lower the production costs.

Besides special events, the six-day-a-week farmer's market, a trail system, a wide array of businesses and restaurants, public spaces with great views, and the many cultural amenities translate into a high quality of life and make Lynchburg a great place to live. It is no surprise that the downtown housing vacancy rate is 2 percent and that the 36 lofts and the studio, gallery, and retail space in the newly renovated Riverviews Artspace were fully leased three months before opening.

Downtown currently has 392 housing units, 43 of which are in upper stories, and more are on the way, such as the 67 units that will be added when the City Lofts project is completed. The city is also working with its partners, the Lynchburg Neighborhood Development Fund and the Lynchburg Redevelopment & Housing Authority to create affordable housing in the surrounding historic districts and to turn blighted housing into attractive renovations.

Lynch's Landing makes communication a priority. Its newsletter is distributed to 45,000 homes as a supplement in Lynchburg's local newspaper, and it sends out a weekly e-mail blast to 600 stakeholders.   The town's image-building events have changed the attitudes of people who once viewed Lynchburg as a flood-damaged city with nothing going on. Its image-building campaign emphasizes "Shop, Dine, Have Fun Downtown!" and "It's Happening Downtown!" and has helped convey that Lynchburg is a vibrant city with a beautiful, landscaped riverfront where much is happening. 

"As a state program, we have not seen a local Main Street organization accomplish so much in such a short period of time," says Amy Yarcich, manager of the Virginia Main Street Program. "The amount of private and public investment, jobs created, and excitement generated since 2000 has made Lynchburg a leader among Main Street communities, not only in Virginia, but also throughout the nation."

"The hallmark of a truly great community is its resilience. Lynchburg has overcome many obstacles in its quest to reclaim its historic buildings and recruit new businesses ––  and because of these efforts, the community is thriving."

Richard Moe, president
National Trust for Historic Preservation

Revitalization Statistics

  • Year Formed: 1996
  • Budget: $1,346,072 (22% from public funding and 78% from private funding)
  • Total Businesses in District: 252
  • District Size: 57 square blocks
  • Housing in District: 392
  • Total Investment in Revitalization:
  • Public – $36 million; Private – $33 million
  • Net Jobs Created: 356
  • Net Businesses Created: 37
  • Building Projects: 57 historic rehabilitations; 4 façade improvements; 0 new construction projects; 2 infill construction projects.