Main Street in Washington has seen its fortunes rise and fall over the years, from the days when it and the other streets of the city’s business district were the center of commerce for people working in the numerous glass plants that surrounded the city to its loss of retail with the advent of shopping malls in its suburbs.
During the last decade, the city built new sidewalks, and many businesses updated storefronts. However, the addition of new retail was minimal.
But recently, along Main Street’s north and south extensions, some merchants are thriving, steel is rising for a covered Main Street Farmers Market and as a future home for other community events, while older, distressed structures are coming down, hopefully to make way for new business endeavors.
While it may be too early to call it a Main Street renaissance, recent events point to a revived optimism along the main business corridor.
“You’re seeing the retailing come slowly back in,” acknowledged Pete Stefansky, manager of the Washington Business District Authority, which is charged with bringing businesses downtown. “That didn’t happen overnight,” he said. “You’re starting to see a slow progression.”
In six days, more than a dozen merchants will hold a “Small Business Saturday” event – part of Black Friday weekend – inviting shoppers to town to visit their shops.
An annual event launched five years ago by American Express Corp. to reach Main Street retailers across America, it is the first time it has been offered in the city.
Merchants who are participating in the holiday event also see it as an initial launch that could lead to other ways to bring more people to town in other seasons.
John and Michele DeFede purchased the Upper Crust restaurant six months ago, and have seen steady business coming through their doors.
A native and current resident of Washington, John DeFede is an avid proponent of change in his hometown.
“Part of me would like to see the city knock condemned buildings down,” he said. “But maybe it wouldn’t be good if you don’t have anyone to build and you end up with an empty space.
“I’d also like to see the city do more festivals, maybe a street fair in the summer. Turn the Christmas parade into a street fair, make it more of a day than an hour.”
Angela Burgess echoed that second sentiment as she pointed toward East Maiden Street adjacent to her dual operation, Washington Winery and A&M Wine and Beer Supplies.
“That’s Route 40 right there – the pike,” she said.
Burgess is head of the promotions committee of the WBDA, and she, too, is enamored of festivals. Why, in her mind, does the National Pike Festival unfold elsewhere along Route 40 and not outside her doors in Washington?
“We should have a celebration this year,” said Burgess, co-owner of the businesses with her husband, John. “When the new year starts, the promotions committee will focus on Pike Days.”
April Ryan also favors festivals, and “more stores. I wish we had them, but how do you do that?”
She owns Inner Artist Studio, which is usually open for events – such as paint and sip – or by appointment. Shop hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursdays throughout the year, plus Saturdays in November and December.
The answer to Ryan’s question lies elsewhere along Main Street and other main corridors of the city’s 16-block business district, partly in the planned demolition of long-neglected buildings and, in one case, to a major new construction project on Main Street, itself.
In a week that saw the demolition of a long-vacant building at 96 N. Main St. that was heavily damaged and beyond saving, Stefansky said there are a couple of developers interested in the site.
He said the authority markets the sites that remain after demolition, as well as older vacant buildings that people can rehab back to functionality.
“A lot of people ask about the blighted properties,” he said, explaining that the authority sends them to the city to discuss what it requires.
Often, when people learn of what it will cost to rehab the buildings, they back away from the project, he said.
“Some developers like the idea of starting from scratch,” he said.
‘From parking lot to hot spot’
A major project in the middle of Main Street’s north-to-south stretch could provide the impetus for what the downtown merchants are looking for – more potential customers on a year-round basis.
Over the past few weeks, drivers passing the 100 block of South Main have seen structural steel rising to form the first half of a 15,000-square-foot, double-arch roof that will cover two city parking lots, one of which has been the site of the highly successful Main Street Farmers Market for the past dozen years.
While it will provide cover for shoppers and vendors for the weekly May-through-October market, as well as the annual Whiskey Rebellion Festival events, the $827,690 project, which was supported by the city, Washington & Jefferson College and donations from the public, along with donations from foundations and corporations, is seen as a focal point for bringing people downtown for a number of yet-to-be-determined events. The project also received a contribution from the Local Share Account provided by The Meadows Casino.
Suzanne Ewing of the Main Street Farmers Market board said her group will work with the city to market the pavilion to various community groups that want to hold events there.
“The different groups will have different ideas about how they can use this space,” she said, adding that the pavilion is expected to make a better fit for groups that can rent the space for an event but don’t want to pay for more expensive venues like convention halls.
While construction won’t permit it this year, Ewing said many of the farmers market vendors have already asked about returning to the pavilion in future holiday shopping seasons to sell Christmas trees, greens and arts and crafts.
Ewing noted that farmers markets are one example that the national “Project for Public Spaces” organization names as a way to convert “a parking lot to a hot spot.”
She said the possibilities for making the space a hot spot for many other events include antique fairs, wine tastings and shows by the local arts community.
Ewing and Stefansky added that the pavilion will give the city two lots of covered metered parking for nights, weekends and days when there are no events in the space.
Some business owners said parking is an issue, but not the only issue, along South Main Street.
Meter availability often evaporates at lunchtime and in the afternoon, said Nancy Ogburn of Chicco Baccello, an intimate coffee house/bakery/deli.
“People have told me they didn’t stop because there was nowhere to park,” she said.
Mornings aren’t as challenging. Ogburn opens her shop at 6:30 a.m. Monday through Friday and 8 a.m. Saturday, hours before neighboring Hungry Jose’s and Keystone Club, so the breakfast crowd has less of a meter challenge.
A few doors up from Chicco Baccello, John DeFede lamented that “parking for lunch can be tough” for the Upper Crust, which opens at 11 a.m. Monday through Saturday. But he admitted that, “We don’t hear many customers complain about it.”
Parking isn’t a thorny issue for the Burgesses, who have a lot in front of their building.
It has minimal to no impact on Ryan’s business, she said.
“My problem is walk-ins,” Ryan said, adding that there aren’t enough of them.
Joe Thomas, the city’s parking director, said he usually receives feedback about the cost – 25 cents for 15 minutes at the metered spaces on streets – and a lack of options.
“We probably need to do a better job of marketing or making people aware of lower-cost options,” Thomas said. “Parking at a meter on the street is the most expensive option.”
The city has five off-street lots, four of which cost 75 cents per hour. The cost for a monthly lease at four of the lots is $45.
In lieu of a monthly lease, the most cost-efficient option is the underused Crossroads parking garage on North Franklin Street, which has about 800 parking spaces. The cost of parking in the garage is $1 for up to two hours, $2 for up to four hours, $3 for up to six hours and $4, the daily maximum rate.
“We’ve been trying to do a better job to make people aware (of the garage) through signage and putting together a fact sheet,” said Thomas, who noted that on-street parking is limited to two hours, at least partly to discourage people from parking at one spot all day and to free up spaces for those going into retail shops.
“It’s always a challenge to try to balance parking … that’s convenient and not cost-prohibitive.”
Parking is free at meters after 5 p.m. on weekdays and all day Saturday, Sunday and on holidays.
Mayor-elect Scott Putnam, a member and former chairman of the parking authority board, said he plans to investigate how much revenue the city collects from the parking fees versus fines collected.
The city’s proposed budget for 2016 anticipates $390,000 in on-street parking meter revenue and $80,000 in owned and leased parking lot collections.
“That is a big, big number we can’t just eliminate, but I’m open to suggestions,” Putnam said.
The ‘Main’ goal
Two of the stores seeing success downtown – Chicco Baccello and Upper Crust – were created by local entrepreneur Mark Kennison Jr., who, after selling them to the current owners, is now finishing up Presidents Pub Grille, a restaurant on North Main. He was not available for comment on when the spot would open.
But more stores and restaurants mean a more vibrant business district, and probably more sales for all merchants. There is a spirit of cooperation that appears to be boosting South Main.
“I work with the winery and the Upper Crust,” Ogburn said.
Burgess said customers buy wine from her and take it across the street to Upper Crust to drink with meals.
“Everyone is on the lookout to help each other,” Ogburn said. “We all want this area to grow.”