Ronceverte Redevelopment Renaissance

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Founded in 1882 in Greenbrier County, West Virginia, Ronceverte was once a lucrative wood-mill town and important rail hub, as well as the county’s commercial center with stores, manufacturing facilities, the county hospital, and stockyards. It is a community of 51 firsts, which include the first brick streets in the county, the first fire department, the first electrical plant, and the first female mayor in the state.

By the 1970s though, the community began decline as it lost businesses due to passing of old families who owned and operated industrial plants, major floods, and changes in traffic patterns caused by the interstate highway system only five miles away. By the 1980s, the town had lost much of the luster of its earlier days.

When I came to Ronceverte in 2001, most of the downtown was desolate,” says former Main Street Program Manager Doug Hylton. “Only a few businesses were holding on.” A big part of the problem, he explains, was that three long-time families were sitting on vacant and underused properties. Some properties were tied up in litigation; some were casualties of slumlord or absentee ownership. Others waited for a downtown renaissance to happen while idle historic buildings deteriorated.

Ronceverte Downtown Before
Construction of the interstate highway system only five miles away and the passing of owners of many long-time businesses sent Ronceverte into a steep decline in the 1970s and 80s.
Credit: Ronceverte Redevelopment Corporation

Setting the Stage for Redevelopment

The community began looking for ways to reverse the decline. First and foremost was a change in the structure of the city government. Ronceverte was the last remaining West Virginia town governed by a commission. In 1999, a new city charter was established and a city council was created. Other signs of progress: a city planning commission was formed, new zoning and planning ordinances were put in place, a city manager was hired, and the city was declared a certified local government.

One of the first orders of business was to figure out what to do with the rampant vacancies downtown. The town formed a Historic Landmark Commission, which began surveying the community for a historic district. The West Virginia University Community Design Team was brought in to help create a strategic plan for redevelopment of the community. That plan recommended formation of a non-governmental agency to oversee community redevelopment. In April 2003, the Ronceverte Development Corporation (RDC) was created to take on this important work.
 
RDC’s first project was to establish its office. The group chose a historic building at the main entrance to town. “After some $65,000 in renovations, our office opened in February 2005,” says Hylton. ”But what was unique about this renovation is that everything but $20,000 in labor costs was covered by donated materials and funds. Even the final labor costs were paid off through grants and Main Street auction proceeds.”

While working on its first project, RDC contacted Main Street West Virginia to learn about the program. The board decided that becoming a part of Main Street should be the next step in downtown’s revitalization. Working with Main Street West Virginia, the organization set up Main Street committees and drew up work plans. In May 2005, Ronceverte was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. A few months later it became a Main Street community. The Main Street program operates within RDC.

Building Momentum

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Through the work of RDC and its Main Street program, Ronceverte's downtown has seen $.15 million in reinvestment.
Credit: Ron Snow, West Virginia Dept of Commerce

“As a result of this extensive planning and preparation, as well as through press coverage about our early successes in changing the town,” says Hylton, “the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) came to Main Street Ronceverte. For the first time ever, our regional USDA wanted to bring all of its available programs into Ronceverte.” They included the Rural Business Enterprise Grant, the Community Facilities Grant and the Guaranteed Loan programs for entrepreneurs. By October 2006, RDC had been awarded $300,000 for the purchase and renovation of three buildings and $50,000 for revolving loans to provide small business assistance.

To handle daily interactions with contractors and other issues, the organization created a Building Committee made up of board members and people familiar with renovations. RDC then bought three buildings and one vacant lot from a prominent town family for $106,000, which was one-third of the appraised value. The family donated $15,000 back to the organization for a tax break.
 
The buildings, which offered the downtown eight retail spaces and five apartments, had been sitting idle for almost a decade. Other than housing a couple of older businesses, most of the space was used for storage. RDC had to take out a loan for the purchase of the buildings while waiting for the disbursement of funds from the USDA. The local bank, the First National, provided a $150,000 line of credit, which helped RDC start work on roof repairs and replacements right away.

“We wanted to get the exterior of the buildings done first, as changing the appearance of the downtown was paramount to our revitalization efforts,” Hylton says. Because the Ronceverte Development Corporation didn’t have enough funds to complete all the projects at once, it phased its work by developing a design plan. This gave the organization a strategy that would maximize its limited assets.
 
“Taking design plans drawn up by Michael Gioulis [the Historic Preservation Consultant for West Virginia Main Street], we began removing the old exterior facades from the buildings. We made sure we protected the windows and other architectural features original to the building.”
 
While work was under way, a private developer approached RDC and offered to take both the vacant lot and the adjacent building off their hands. The proceeds of the sale helped the organization tackle other projects that had been slated for a later phase.

Matching Businesses with Buildings

The Ronceverte Redevelopment Corporation based its leasing plan on the community’s average retail space rates, which at the time ranged between $6 and $8/square foot. Ordinarily, a 1,000-square-foot space might run between $600-800/month. But there was still work that needed to be done. Therefore, before renting spaces, RDC upgraded the electrical, plumbing, and HVAC systems of the buildings, while expecting that the tenants would provide the cosmetic interior work such as drywall, paint, and flooring. The tenants would give RDC invoices for their work, and those costs would be deducted from the monthly rent until their investment had been paid back. In some cases, the businesses were paying only $250 a month on their rent instead of $800.

“We reviewed our marketing plan and surveys of the community to give us an idea of the types of businesses that the citizens wanted.,” says Hylton. “Our Economic Restructuring Committee began receiving requests for space, which included businesses like exotic dance clubs, video poker parlors, and tattoo shops. We realized that we needed to determine what sort of businesses we wanted in our downtown.”
 
While the organization was thrilled by new businesses prospects, it also wanted to improve the town’s image. In July 2007, the first business opened, and by March 2008, six retail spaces had been filled. The initial businesses chosen for the first two rehabbed buildings included a flower and gift shop, a fabric store, a restaurant and bakery, a jeweler, and an arts and crafts store. A service organization, Women’s, Infant’s and Children’s (WIC) Services, also filled one of the spaces, which helps bring customers who would otherwise never come to that section of the downtown into the nearby shops.

Following those triumphs, the upper-floor apartments were completed, as well as four commercial properties on another block. There were 12 vacancies downtown when the Ronceverte Development Corporation started its work. Today there are just four.

“All of our buildings are up for sale. Always,” says Hylton. RDC’s plan is to keep buying real estate, rehabbing properties, and finding tenants for the commercial spaces and apartments. “We want to eventually sell these buildings,” says Hylton, “so we can keep it rolling and buy more buildings.”

Ronceverte Community Center
Housed in the former Clifford National Guard Armory, this community center will host concerts, dances, and other events to bring activity downtown.
Credit: Ron Snow, West Virginia Dept of Commerce

The sale of one property allowed the purchase of the Clifford National Guard Armory. This 15,000-square-foot building, which has classrooms, offices, a kitchen, and a full gymnasium and dressing rooms, is now being managed by the Ronceverte Development Corporation. It will eventually become the Clifford Community and Recreation Center and will be the site for the Main Street Annual Auction. RDC’s business plan for the facility seeks to accommodate concerts, dances, and other events that will bring activity to downtown.

A second USDA Rural Business Enterprise Grant for $350,000 gave RDC the funds to purchase three more buildings: The American Legion Building from the Lions Club, the Oddfellows Lodge, and the Shanklin’s Grand Theater. The purchase and renovations of these properties will provide three more retail spaces, two additional apartments, as well as space to create a recording studio, community theater, dance and karate studios, and other related businesses.

A great twist to this story is the community’s commitment to engaging young people in the downtown renaissance. Area youth helped plan and raise the funds for a $132,000 skateboard park, the largest in Greenbrier County. In just over a year and a half, they not only raised the money but learned that if they worked with community leaders as contributing citizens, they would get projects that they wanted included in the town’s renovation plans.
 
Going forward, RDC hopes to make all new projects green rehabs. The organization snagged a Main Street West Virginia grant that will help them put together a plan for an eco district. They are looking at rain gardens, geothermal energy systems, solar power, and other ways rehab buildings “in a smart way.” The organization hopes to take what they learn and teach other Main Street programs how to do it, too. Read more about Ronceverte's Eco-District.

Ronceverte Shanklins Theater
Shanklin’s Grand Theatre,designed by John Norman, Sr., one of West Virginia’s first African American architects, was placed the Preservation Alliance West Virginia's 2011 Endangered List Properties. The Ronceverte Development Corporation purchased the downtown property to protect it from demolition.
Credit: Jesse Shapins

“Our work has paid off. We have had 17 new businesses come to Ronceverte and more than $1.5 million in reinvestment,” says Hylton. The reinvestment total includes the sale of nine buildings, the renovation of two others, the completion of phase one of a new streetscape, the installation of 23 new lampposts in the downtown, the purchase of 13 new trash receptacles, and new entrance and wayfinding signs for the downtown. To showcase its work, the Main Street program hosted “Business after Hours” and opened up 28 spaces for a public tour.

“This is an exciting time for Ronceverte. We have accomplished a great deal since becoming a member of Main Street in September 2005,” says Hlyton. “But with time and the talents of everyone involved, we know that Ronceverte will be a community of which we can once again be proud.”