2010 Great American Main Street Award
Fairmont, West Virginia
By Andrea L. Dono | From Main Street Story of the Week | July/August 2010 |
|Main Street Now PDF 2010/07_08|
Each year, the National Trust Main Street Center recognizes the best and the brightest – five Main Street communities whose passion, innovation, and inspiring success serve as a model for comprehensive commercial district revitalization throughout the nation. Selected by a nationwide jury of five community development experts, each of the winners has proven that incremental progress – and persistence – pays off, creating economic vitality, a unique sense of place, and a greater commitment to community by all of its residents.
Fairmont, West Virginia, dubbed “The Friendly City,” offers miles of hiking trails, museums, and a quaint riverside downtown. Its restored 1920s “Million Dollar” High Level Bridge, which is listed in the National Register, today serves as a bold monumental gateway representing the fortitude of local residents.
Fairmont has a history deeply rooted in various industries, from coal and oil to glass and brick. Its resources are reflected in its unique, decorative architectural design. The city thrived during the mid-1800s through 1950 but then fell onto hard times.
When Main Street Fairmont got its start in 1993, the community was reeling from a high unemployment rate, a mass exodus of major employers, and a 15 percent drop in population. The deteriorating condition of the local economy and infrastructure eventually led to the closure of the historic bridge, which effectively cut off the east and west sides of the city.
The downtown’s revitalization story revolves around making connections. One of the most prominent connections is the reuniting of the east and west sides of the city. Program volunteers led a campaign that cinched the bridge’s $24 million rehabilitation. Local business owner Karen Gribben says they took the fight all the way to Washington, D.C., and it was worth it because “it served as a healing link between our severed downtown.” This structure, one of the earliest reinforced-concrete arch bridges, now serves as a powerful gateway into the downtown.
To tackle the southside community, the Economic Restructuring Committee received year-long community development and revitalization training thanks to participation in a new program of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Pittsburgh (FHLB-Pittsburgh). Volunteers began documenting properties and taking on a demonstration site.
The owner of 205 Fairmont Avenue gave a percentage of the building to Main Street Fairmont, and the group embarked on a rehabilitation that showcased the possibilities of leveraging grants and tax credits. A grant from the State Historic Preservation Office provided funds to install a new roof on the building, as well as to fund rehabilitation work on two other historic buildings and add preservation easements into deed restrictions. The Main Street organization helped find a tenant for the new building, bringing an arts center to Fairmont. Additional initiatives with the FHLB-Pittsburgh include a $600,000 project to create affordable housing on the upper floors of historic buildings.
This FHLB-Pittsburgh project sparked a partnership with the Fairmont Community Development Partnership (FCDP) and the formation of a new umbrella group dedicated to promoting Fairmont Southside. The reinvigorated Southside area, together with a downtown-wide, color-coded wayfinding system, will create an effective and attractive community gateway. The gateway connector will welcome residents and newcomers and point them to the different neighborhoods in the downtown area. Transportation Enhancement grant money paid for the second phase of the downtown’s streetscaping project, adding brick pavers and
“The FCDP recently purchased the historic YMCA building to protect it from unscrupulous developers. We are hoping to restore the early 20th century building to its previous splendor,” says Robert Gribben, FCDP’s executive director. “Main Street Fairmont and FCDP worked together to create a report on this building – bringing together information about the historic, architectural, and development potential of the building. The report was also used for a successful grant application to the SHPO office that Main Street Fairmont volunteers wrote on our behalf.”
Since Main Street Fairmont was selected as one of the “Main Street in 3D” communities, it will be using Google SketchUp™ to create a 3D model of the interior and exterior of the building to help generate development interest.
Another important catalyst project is Veteran’s Square, which turned a series of abandoned structures into 64,000 square feet of retail and commercial space as well as public space that pays homage to the area’s veterans. The facility has brought the West Virginia Small Business Development Center and 100 jobs affiliated with the West Virginia High Tech Consortium to the downtown, as well as giving Fairmont State University a spot in the district.
Working with the Community
Downtown business and property owners are enjoying the many resources available to them through Main Street West Virginia. Leveraging West Virginia Main Street’s design services, downtown has seen 15 façade rehabilitations in the last five years and its façade and sign grant program has distributed $40,000 for improvements.
Partnerships with the Small Business Development Center, Fairmont State University, and the Chamber of Commerce create a variety of small business workshops on topics ranging from marketing to Gen Y customers to storefront window design. In working with the FHLB-Pittsburgh, the organization promotes the Banking on Business program, which helps small business owners acquire start up and expansion funds.
The organization’s commitment to the community has had a big impact in retaining local businesses. Louis Spatafore, the owner of Friendly Furniture Galleries, says that before the Main Street program started, “I had seriously considered relocating. The condition of downtown was dismal at best and the city had no positive vision for the future.” He saw that the organization was going to accomplish its goals and had the clear support of stakeholders.
The owner of the independent pharmacy and gift shop thanks Main Street Fairmont for keeping it competitive when two chain competitors located just outside downtown’s limits. “We were able to enhance our storefront with large display windows and signage, while keeping our historic building compatible with the downtown,” says Jonathan Rider of Rider Pharmacy, which has been downtown since 1967. He adds that design assistance helped them solve rising damp problems with the building and also helped them improve its appearance with appropriate historic colors.
Main Street Fairmont’s partnership list runs long, as the organization understands collaboration is essential to its sustainability. The city offers financial support for the organization’s operating budget, the Convention and Visitors Bureau and regional media outlets provide free promotion, the public works department offers manpower, and a variety of area nonprofits provide volunteers and assistance with joint community efforts. Main Street Fairmont credits its partnership cultivation with increasing its operating budget by almost 100 percent in the last four years and maintaining a 2:3 public/private funding ratio.
By attending city council and county commission meetings, the Organization Committee members have solidified their relationship with the local government. These relationships have helped build a strong preservation ethic in the community. Since his first resource team visit, Main Street West Virginia’s Michael Gioulis points out that Fairmont now “has a concerned and active county commission that is taking a proactive role in preserving the significant county courthouse.” There have been many private rehabilitations, he adds, “that meet or exceed accepted historic preservation standards, including tax credit projects."
Volunteers represent merchant concerns at Parking Authority meetings and work with the economic development departments of the city and county to attract investors and developers. To prepare volunteers to handle this important work, Main Street Fairmont has created a handbook describing the duties and expectations for board members and volunteers.
In an effort to connect the community to its Italian immigrant heritage, the program produces its annual Feast of Seven Fishes Festival, inspired by an Italian religious event. This Italian food and heritage festival will put Main Street Fairmont on the map when a cinematic version of a graphic novel that shares the name of the street fair is released later this year.
“When members of Main Street Fairmont’s board approached me about starting a December street festival inspired by the Feast, I was immediately enthusiastic,” says author Robert Tinnell. “What I was not prepared for, however, was just how successful the event would become. It is gratifying beyond words to see the festival’s healing effects on the downtown area as well as its reputation as a living embodiment of cultural preservation.”
This event has even attracted the attention of the Food Network. There’s a cooking school, homemade wine and Italian cookie-baking contests, music, dancing, fish, and even a religious mass. Attendance continues to bump up, with 7,000 visitors coming last year, and a retail promotion angle has shopkeepers reporting sales increases of 200 percent.
Main Street Fairmont also uses technology to embrace its heritage. Funded by a Preserve America grant, podcasts will capture oral histories and stories associated with the town’s coal mining past, the downtown, and the North Central West Virginia region. The organization wants to use its history not only to bring residents and visitors downtown but also to promote heritage tourism and collaborate with other historic preservation and revitalization-minded efforts in the region.
Today, the population is on the rise, businesses are back, and Fairmont’s optimism and pride has been restored. After 30 years of decline and 17 years of revitalization work, Fairmont’s population is growing again and the connections being made to and within the downtown are growing stronger every day.
Andrea L. Dono is the program manager of research and training for the NTMSC.
Andrea L. Dono is the program manager of research and training for the NTMSC.