Once upon a time, downtown Danville, like many other towns, was a hub of constant activity.
Theatre, shopping, restaurants, doctors, offices, factories — whatever you needed to find, downtown is where you went. The streets were a constant hum of activity, and most people did not live too far from “town.” If they did, it was almost guaranteed the family would make a trip there once a week or so.
And then, over the course of just a few short decades, the epicenter of history and culture for entire generations of people began to fade into yesterday. Historic buildings and empty storefronts were boarded up and in disrepair, in some cases falling into the now-empty streets. The people were long gone, and property values (with accompanying property taxes) plummeted. With a mass exodus of shops and shoppers from the downtown, there also was no sales tax being generated. This created an even bigger budget issue. In addition, the resulting blight attracted less-than-savory activities.
How did it come to be that the heart of our communities became a place that people no longer wanted to go? Many times, we equate the decline of our downtowns to the relocation of so many anchor industries in the 70s and 80s. While that certainly didn’t help the situation, the fact is that it began quite a while before that.
It was the construction of a national highway system and accompanying roadways that offered “new” and “better” suburban living opportunities for families that spurred the decline of downtown areas. When many of the new roads were built, designers either avoided the downtown in the interest of speed and ease of access, or they located the highway right through the historical center. This further displaced local populations and destroyed traditional commercial business districts.
The highway system drove our country even further into an automobile-dependent society and allowed for people to move into the suburbs and enjoy big homes on ever larger plots of land. Business owners saw an opportunity to relocate closer to where people lived, and stores pulled up long-standing ties from Main Streets across the country and relocated into strip malls and shopping centers.
Which brings us to where we are today. How many times have you heard the words “downtown revitalization” and wondered what that really means? In Danville, we use an approach that began 40 years ago this year. In 1980, the National Main Street Center launched as a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. They created the Main Street Approach, a volunteer-driven strategy that works incrementally to help revive downtowns by tapping into locals that are passionate about saving historic and older buildings, and volunteers focused on the cultural soul of our communities.
The River District Association is the not-for-profit organization in Danville that works with the city, merchants, partners, residents, and stakeholders to plan and implement strategies that follow the Main Street America 4-Point Approach. An even simpler way to describe the work we do — create a place where people once again want to visit, work and live.
Approximately 2,000 towns and small cities across the country are currently using the Main Street Approach, but it is not always clear why local government would spend money downtown when there are so many needs in a city to be addressed. Questions arise because of the limited funding available for the many things that must be done for all residents. Improving schools and facilities, repairing roads and infrastructure, and providing fire, police and other emergency services throughout the city are always top of the list. It could seem putting dollars into downtown is frivolous and perhaps not the best use of funds.
At the River District Association, we realize how important it is to help residents understand why and how investment in our downtown leads to the financial and long-term sustainability for our community. Not just for people who live or can invest in downtown, but for everyone in Danville, our area and the entire region. Our mission in writing this column is to shed light on some of your larger questions, share updates on projects in the River District, and invite you to become part of the progress in Danville people across the country see as a story of success.
Danville as an example of success might seem hard for some to believe. That is because it is easier to see the “20-year overnight success” standing from the outside and looking in the window on occasion. When we as locals drive downtown every day or week, progress feels painfully slow and not much seems to change.
There are many advancements taking place that are not always obvious, and there is a reason Danville is earning the moniker “Comeback City.” But the only way to truly see our entire community rise is for all of us to work together to make it happen. The goal is to see the success flow outward into every corner and street in Danville.
We may be starting in the downtown, but it is indeed only the start.
Schwartz is the executive director of the River District Association in Danville. Contact her at (43) 791-0210 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Learn more about the organization at www.riverdistrictassociation.com.