It might be getting colder, but downtown is getting anything but stagnant as great things are continuing downtown. Of special importance is the Wassenberg Art Center which recently hosted a grand opening at their new location in the former Van Wert Armory. The Van Wert County Foundation has made themselves a downtown champion with their renovation of that beautiful facility and their pledge for continued improvements and beautification of the south entrance to downtown. This new art center has shaped our downtown so significantly by becoming a community anchor and adding tourism that so positively impacts all of downtown.
Although I try to avoid clichés in writing, it really must be said: that time of year is almost here again! The temperature is dropping, we have already seen our first snow, and we all know we will see much more before it gets warmer. With the holidays just around the corner, this becomes the favorite time of year for so many, myself included. Who doesn’t reminisce when they watch a Christmas movie and see the downtown staged with lights and festive décor? Each Hollywood set built with beautiful storefronts that make each shop and the entire street so very inviting. Thanks to the Van Wert Engineering Department, our own downtown is already beginning to look a little more like those quaint Christmas movie towns, as the thirty-some wreaths along Main and Washington streets don’t just magically appear. And in the coming weeks, so many of our wonderful downtown businesses will be decorating their shops, windows and storefronts to create our own beautiful small town holiday scene. I always pause and listen when a family friend or neighbor shares their fond memories with me about what the holiday season used to look like downtown. I’ve even seen many beautiful vintage photos from different eras. Although our downtown has fluctuated over the decades, with each new business that opens today the opportunity for us to create new memories continues to grow.
After all, the charm of downtown is nothing without the businesses that bring the buildings to life and make it a special place. Please remember our downtown shops and stores as you begin buying gifts this season, as their stores will be filled with wonderful items for anyone on your list. In fact, our promotions committee has planned two different events for you to enjoy the music and atmosphere of shopping downtown. On November 30th from 10am – 2pm, the beautiful Hotel Marsh will be filled with wonderful Christmas gifts and holiday decorating ideas for the Holiday Extravaganza Craft & Vendor Show. More than 30 vendors will exhibit handcrafted, homemade, and one of a kind items alongside delicious refreshments. Then on Saturday, December 7th, several downtown shops will be hosting Christmas Open House events in their stores to help you find something unique and memorable.
In his book, Walkable City, author Jeff Speck says,"Downtown is the only part of the city that belongs to everybody. It doesn't matter where you may find your home; the downtown is yours, too. Investing in the downtown of a city is the only place-based way to benefit all of its citizens at once." And there's more. Speck goes on to explain how the real image of downtown affects the perceived image of the entire community. Every decision regarding relocation, from a college graduate deciding whether to return or a corporation looking to build or expand, is made with an image in mind.
Close your eyes and think of Van Wert. What do you see? Images probably come to mind of buildings, streets, parks, restaurants, or community events. Hopefully the images are positive. Chances are, however, that the images you see are of downtown. And you are not alone. With Van Wert being the largest city in our county, downtown Van Wert is often the image of the entire community and the image taken by those who visit each year. This image that your mind forms is powerful and resolutely physical. Similar to a first impression when meeting someone new, whether good or bad, that image of a community is difficult to shake once taken.
For that reason, a city's reputation is based in large part on how its downtown looks. If the downtown shows deterioration and years of disinvestment, the image of the city is not as strong as it could be. Families may not want to move there, tourists will not be impressed with what they find, and it will be harder for citizens to feel good about their community. On the reverse, however, a beautiful and vibrant downtown can be the rising tide that lifts all ships. Each building that undergoes a facelift, renovation, or new business that finds its home downtown adds to the growing excitement about the heart of our community and the potential that is being uncovered.
We feel that potential is fully understood in the Van Wert Downtown Comprehensive Plan, the result of several months of interviews, studies, meetings and planning sessions all focused on addressing the real issues facing our downtown. Although it is a vision document, it encompasses the 4 areas that any downtown revitalization program must focus on to achieve success: organizational capacity, physical design, business enhancement, and district promotions. It is the goal of Main Street Van Wert to plan our projects and activities each year from this Comprehensive Plan, transforming these concepts into a more beautiful and stronger downtown which enhances each person’s image of Van Wert.
Downtown Van Wert is open for business, and so far this summer we are already seeing new businesses find their place and find their customers in our historic downtown. With cakecrazy’s grand opening earlier in May, and Once I Was boutique scheduled to open late this month, our downtown is growing and so is the mix of businesses, products and services available. These two buildings have seen extensive renovations inside and out; once vacant storefronts are now active with customers walking in and out, excited about the additional shopping opportunities. Both of these rehabs, along with the Armory renovation as the future home of Wassenberg Art Center, show how versatile these buildings are and how a little creativity truly does go a long way. Improvements such as new windows, a fabric awning, or simply a fresh coat of paint can turn a neglected or unnoticeable building into a very attractive destination.
Many of the downtown activities from years past will be hosted again this spring and summer as well. The first full weekend in June brings the annual Van Wert Peony Festival and ArtRageous on Main, which are hosted in Fountain Park. Activities during this festival weekend include free kids activities, car show, artist and craft exhibitors, and the kick off to the Fountain Park Summer Concert Series that Friday evening, June 7th. The Market on Main which began last summer as a weekly outdoor market returns in front of the County Courthouse May 31st. Each Friday the market will feature growers, vendors, crafters, musicians and artisans of all kinds. A new downtown promotion running through August is the “I Shop Downtown” customer card program, with over 30 downtown businesses participating. These yellow cards can be filled out each time you shop, dine, or pick up your dry-cleaning downtown. Once complete, turn them into the MSVW office to be entered into monthly drawings for gift certificates and merchandise.
The Downtown Comprehensive Plan is nearly complete, winding down several months work of surveys, market studies, interviews with business owners and customers, and documenting the conditions of buildings and infrastructure. Some of the more exciting elements of this plan are renderings from a professional landscape architect transforming the ideas that were generated into images transforming what our downtown could look like. Although still conceptual images, many of the elements discussed included more plants and green space, more defined entrances into downtown, and making sure the district is as walkable as possible. After all, these historic buildings were built for decades before an automobile ever drove down Main Street. It will be the goal of the Main Street Van Wert organization to plan our projects and activities each year from this Comprehensive Plan, steadily transforming these concepts into a more beautiful and better functioning city center in which the entire community takes pride.
Downtown Van Wert is open for business, and the next time you are here for an appointment, lunch, or to do a little shopping, chances are your parking space will be open too. For the past several months, Main Street Van Wert has been demonstrating not only the need but the importance of parking enforcement along Main and Washington Streets in our historic district. By enforcing the parking limits already in place throughout Downtown, the City is taking another step toward creating an atmosphere that encourages continued business growth.
Customers of both retail and service businesses enjoy the convenience of parking close to their destination. Driving around the block without finding a space is discouraging, leads to the perception that parking is not available, and may prevent that individual from returning to those stores and restaurants. The opposite is also true; who would open a store or restaurant in an area where there doesn’t seem to be any open parking? So the challenge is not only making sure there is enough parking for everyone who uses downtown, but to make sure that everyone understands the importance of parking in the area that best fits their needs. With today’s retail and consumer trends, it is important that the spaces closest to the businesses are available for customer parking and continue to turn over during the day. The more cars that park in one space each day translates into more money being spent at the independent businesses within the district.
If you actually take the time to count the parking spaces available in the free public lots on Central Avenue and N. Market Street, you quickly realize that there is not a parking shortage. The board members and volunteers of Main Street with help from our City Council took these counts on several occasions, noting each time that dozens of spaces were available during the busiest hours each weekday. This is why those who work or do business downtown for more than 2 hours at a time are encouraged to use these free public parking areas, leaving more street-side spaces open for customers.
Almost every rural community could make the argument that there isn’t enough parking on Main Street. In fact, some of the nicest and most popular small towns across Ohio are known for inadequate parking, yet they continue to draw people to dine and shop season after season. When visiting a mall or other big box store, no one thinks twice about walking a few hundred yards of asphalt before reaching the entrance. Historic town centers were designed and built long before automobiles were one per person, but that’s part of the reason Downtown Van Wert is such a unique place. It’s that character and nostalgic charm that invites us to park a block away and become a pedestrian, taking in the ornate buildings and rich history on the walk to our destination.
Demolition begins at 212 East Main.
Those who work in the field of preservation often shudder at the thought of demolition. For most people it brings to mind heavy machinery, falling buildings, and piles of rubble and waste. And yes, too often historic buildings constructed of strong materials and unmatched craftsmanship do fall victim to this destruction. But another type of demolition exists and is happening every day in communities like Van Wert.
As a nationally recognized Main Street program, we rarely seek demolition as the solution for an aging property. Along with the City Design Review Board, we work closely with property owners and consider all the factors when discussing the options for a neglected building. In the case of 212 East Main, however, demolition of the property started long before June.
The neglect of a historic building is the second type of demolition. It doesn’t take machinery or work crews, instead it requires no action at all. Demolition by neglect is the destruction of a building through abandonment or lack of required maintenance. By simply not performing routine maintenance on the low pitched roof, aging wood windows and clapboard siding, you can ensure the demolition of a great building in a matter of years. This is why strong and growing businesses in our downtown are the surest way to achieve preservation. Having a store or business located in a building is a safe bet that the owner is performing the maintenance these older properties require. The longer a building sits vacant the greater the threat of demolition either because of an impoverished owner, an absentee landlord, or an uncaring attitude toward the goals of the downtown community. After being exposed to the elements and multiple vandalisms for too long, the building’s integrity becomes jeopardized and renovation is no longer economical. The most cost-effective solution for cleanup is then demolition.
When the last resort is demolition, we strive to make sure it happens with little disruption to neighboring businesses and downtown activity. We also make sure that a plan is in place for what the property will become once the building is gone. By working closely with the property owners, we can help them plan out a use for the open space to make sure it becomes an asset to Main Street and not an eyesore. We are saddened by the most recent victim of demolition, but excited about the future plans for the property and the role it will play in continuing to transform Downtown Van Wert into a more vibrant and thriving district.
The start of a new year means several things for me; I set a handful of resolutions to break and at some point I finally put away the Christmas decorations. But somewhere between eating healthier and watching less TV (two resolutions I attempt every year), I like to take time to reflect on the year gone by. For myself and for Main Street Van Wert, I feel it is important to look at the past year in detail. It’s an opportunity to recognize successes, learn from our endeavors, and set goals to grow as individuals and as an organization in the New Year.
For Main Street Van Wert, 2011 was a year progress even in the midst of a recovering economy. Fulfilling our role as an Ohio Main Street Program, Main Street Van Wert concentrated our efforts across four main categories. As a primarily volunteer organization, Main Street actively worked towards improving the downtown image, building cooperation between different groups, strengthening downtown economics, and promoting our downtown’s unique characteristics both locally and regionally.
2011 brought many new changes as well. New volunteers donated their time toward events and projects, new businesses found locations and customers downtown, and I joined Main Street Van Wert as Interim Program Manager in September.
As a Van Wert native, I find it impossible not to take pride in my community and our unique downtown. Growing up, I participated in summer activities at Brumback Library and visited Santa at his Workshop in front of the courthouse. I remember lunch at Balyeat’s, piano lessons at the music center, and watching summer parades. As an adult, I find it exciting to be in a role where I get to work toward improving the community where I was raised. It is a privilege to work with so many great businesses and individuals who support Main Street Van Wert and are helping us strive toward downtown revitalization!