Giles County boasts bucolic farmland valleys amid large areas of mountain wilderness in the National Forest, and a total population under 20,000. Although largely rural, the county is home to five incorporated towns- Glen Lyn, Pearisburg, Pembroke, Narrows, and Rich Creek- with populations ranging from 100 to 3,000. Each town has a unique history and sense of place, but the people in all five towns share a deep affection and pride for their communities, and a strong commitment to seeing their town succeed into the future. Over the past few years, this commitment has brought together citizens, businesses, and public officials to build partnerships around addressing challenges that would be difficult for a small community with limited resources to solve on their own.
One pressing issue facing the towns is disinvestment and vacancy in their historic downtown ‘Main Street’ business districts. Businesses in some towns have seen their customer base shrink as employment in traditional industries decline and residents move away, while nearly all ‘Main Street’ businesses face ever increasing competition from regional ‘big box’ centers and online shopping. As businesses close and landlords defer maintenance on vacant properties, the downtown area becomes less attractive for both businesses and their customers, which threatens to lead to a cycle of further closures and vacancies. Conversely, a welcoming downtown area with an array of amenities and services can help the towns to attract visitors- and new businesses and residents- and increase overall economic activity.
Over the past several years, Giles County and the towns have been working with regional and state partner agencies to transform downtown areas into thriving commercial districts again. A recent planning process supported by the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) outlines an array of projects to advance a ‘Main Street approach’ to downtown revitalization in each town (more on the Virginia Main Street program at: http://www.dhcd.virginia.gov/mainstreet). The related initiatives include: planned physical improvements to downtown buildings and public spaces to create attractive destinations for visitors and new businesses; the expansion and coordination of small business development support resources, and; tourism promotion and marketing efforts designed to connect downtown-based businesses to potential customers—with a special focus on the many visitors to Giles County’s numerous outdoor recreation amenities.
The towns are surrounded by outdoor recreation attractions, including fishing and watersports on the New River, campgrounds and National Forest facilities, and miles of scenic hiking and biking trails. Through initiatives such as the New River Water Trail (www.newriverwatertrail.com), the Giles County Tourism Office and the towns are working to make sure that potential visitors are aware of all the outdoor adventures Giles County can offer- and also that nearby local businesses can provide food, shopping, and services during their trip.
The Town of Narrows has progressed farthest with the implementation of these downtown construction projects to date, completing several small downtown improvement projects to provide window dressing for vacant buildings and construct a visitor information kiosk near the Duck Pond, and beginning the implementation of over $1 million in recent grant awards that the Town has received to implement their downtown revitalization strategy.
The grants include a $699,346 CDBG Business District Revitalization Grant that will fund the construction of public spaces and amenities in the business district that are designed to encourage visitors to stop and explore the town, its businesses, and surrounding attractions. The project provides matching funds for repair and renovation of facades of commercial structures, and implements improvement projects to enhance the streetscape and public spaces and amenities – including the addition of a Creekside Trail and public space along Wolf Creek. In addition, the Town of Narrows received $392,588 from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) to complete a related revitalization project to locate an outfitter business on Wolf Creek. Funds from this grant are to be used in conjunction with the awarded CDBG grant to make many of the downtown improvements, to obtain property along the proposed Creekside Trail, and to create an area for water-oriented recreational activities in the downtown area. Construction activities in downtown Narrows will be completed over the next two years.
Several other towns in Giles County are on a similar trajectory to secure their own funding for similar projects in other Giles County towns, and advance the shared goals of encouraging downtown revitalization, supporting small businesses, and attracting visitors to outdoor recreation amenties. For more information about Giles County’s downtown revitalization and outdoor recreation tourism initiatives, please contact Patrick O’Brien at the New River Valley Regional Commission: ph-540-639-9313, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.