Established as a railroad town to serve mining and logging industries, Elkins, W.Va., thrived for decades. Jacksonville, Fla.-based CSX was one of the city’s major employers, and the company’s 24-acre rail yard was the economic center of the city.
By the 1990s, CSX was removing tracks and downsizing its operations, and it eventually abandoned the rail yard. Seeing an opportunity to redevelop the rail yard as prime real estate property, the Randolph County Development Authority (RCDA) purchased the site in 1997 for $2.1 million.
While the land acquisition was a tremendous windfall for the community, it also posed a tremendous challenge. The community had to decide what types of land uses would generate the most benefit for the local economy and Elkins’ 8,000 residents.
America is dotted with hundreds of small towns like Elkins that have been victims of economic dislocations of various types. Mills close; shopping centers drain businesses away from Main Street; and residents flock to opportunities in larger cities or to less dense neighborhoods in suburbs. Those changes leave communities with the challenge of attracting new residents and businesses. Communities can begin to tackle that challenge by developing a clear vision of what they want to accomplish.
It often comes as a surprise to many that the first step in the successful revitalization of a city is the articulation of a vision. Many might think that finding the necessary funding is the top priority, but cities will find money only if they can clearly formulate and project their dreams for a better future. The vision must be fleshed out with images, pictures and economic projections. Before momentum can build on a revitalization project, cities must generate consensus on what can be achieved and how to go about achieving it.
Recasting a town’s image
In Elkins, the RCDA sought help from a development consultant who could help create a vision of the future city. The organization worked with the consultant to gather input from residents and businesses through a series of public meetings and design charettes.
From that input, the team created a master plan to guide the site’s redevelopment. “I can’t stress enough how important it was to let the entire community in on this,” says Denver Barnett, executive director for the RCDA. “It unified the whole city behind this effort and built a momentum that became all but unstoppable.”
As part of their vision, Elkins residents and officials wanted the city to serve as a regional hub for recreation. Elkins once was known to the mining industry as The Gateway to the Monongahela National Forest because of its mineral resources. As city leaders considered the town’s post-CSX future, they wanted to promote a gateway that would attract people for camping, fishing, snow skiing, canoeing, hiking and biking.
To help accomplish that, the RCDA planned to renovate the CSX stationhouse and convert it into a visitors center and museum. The city also planned to develop the area around the visitors center with a mix of office space, housing, retail space and accommodations for visitors and conventioneers.
In May 2001, the RCDA finished renovating the train station, and by August, all tenants had moved in. The city is continuing to upgrade infrastructure, including water, storm sewer, sanitary sewer and roads, to support the rest of the renewal projects, which will take about 10 years to complete.
Inclusion is invaluable
Unlike Elkins, which had fallen on hard times as a result of a changing economy, Lenoir, N.C., has enjoyed growth in recent years. As a result, the community of 16,000 residents has spread into the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and away from the downtown area. Concerned that the downtown area’s historical and financial significance would suffer, the city undertook efforts to draw residents and visitors back to the city’s core. City leaders called for the redevelopment of a two-block section of downtown to accommodate new government, retail, housing, office and restaurant facilities.
The city sought help from the county government in making the new city plan successful. “Our county commissioners have agreed to keep their offices, courthouses, etc., in the area, which is sort of an anchor for that sector,” says Beth McCorkle, economic development director. “I’m not sure we could have made it all work without their help and commitment.”
City officials worked with a consultant to gather input from residents and county officials about how to redevelop the area. After about six months of meetings and charettes, the consultant developed a final design scheme with cost estimates, a report on funding alternatives and basic design guidelines. The consultant presented the design scheme to the city, the county and the public before creating a master plan. “Good public relations has been an essential part of this effort,” McCorkle says. “Every effort has been made to keep the public informed of every step of progress.”
The master plan, completed in January 2001, calls for the city to acquire abandoned and dilapidated non-commercial properties and to reconstruct them to accommodate mixed uses. The city also will construct additional off-street parking, move utility wires underground and make improvements to area streets, sidewalks, streetscapes and the storm drainage system.
The city is seeking private and public funding to make the $28 million project much more palatable to taxpayers. “When the public realizes that a project is not all being funded out of their taxes, it becomes a much more popular proposition,” McCorkle says.
Getting from assessment to action
On a slightly larger scale, Greenville, S.C., also has grown in recent years, and residents have left historic, inner-city neighborhoods in favor of newer neighborhoods in the suburbs. As a result, downtown neighborhoods have been neglected and have fallen into disrepair. In response, the city is planning projects to make improvements and entice businesses and residents to return.
One of those projects focuses on Greenline-Spartanburg, a neighborhood featuring a high percentage of rental units owned by absentee landlords and a few single-family homes owned by senior citizens. The neighborhood is characterized by dilapidated properties, decaying infrastructure and high crime rates.
A few years ago, Clemson University studied the neighborhood to determine opportunities for revitalization. That study produced grassroots interest in the area, and community groups enlisted the city’s Economic and Community Development Division (ECDD) to formulate an action plan.
In June 2000, the division contracted with a consultant to prepare a master plan for the revitalization of the neighborhood. In a nine-month-long series of meetings, site visits and focus groups, the consultant met with city officials, neighborhood associations and property owners to determine goals for redevelopment.
From those meetings, the consultant created three concepts for future development of the area and presented them to residents at a meeting. Residents picked the components they liked the best, and those were integrated into a master plan, which residents and the city council subsequently approved in February 2001.
“The plan is not set in stone,” notes Norm Gollub, economic development representative and urban planner for the city. “It’s been adopted by the city council, but there’s room to modify bits and pieces of it. Just because you have a master plan doesn’t necessarily mean that every picture has to be brought to reality. There’s some room for flexibility.”
The master plan for the neighborhood calls for the city to reconfigure most of the streets; install new sewer, water, telephone, electrical and gas lines underground; and create new gateways. According to the plan, 138 of the existing 163 housing units will be removed, and new housing units will be built so that 171 units will exist when the redevelopment is complete.
The ECDD’s Community Development Department will help residents transition into new homes. “Because many of these existing structures are so dilapidated and not up to code, when people are transitioned out, they are almost always put into better housing,” Gollub says. “That’s going to be a long-term process. It’s not all going to happen at once.”
To keep residents informed during the redevelopment process, the city plans to mail them information, to post announcements in the community center and to keep the media abreast of construction and other events. Throughout the redevelopment process, the city will be able to use its master plan to market the neighborhood to potential developers and investors, and to remind residents of the city’s goals. “[The plan] is something that the community can hold to their heart as a vision,” Gollub says. “In a sense, it anchors the revitalization of the neighborhood by having this vision.”
Gaining and sustaining support
Revitalization projects are driven by multiple factors, but none more critical than a clear vision. Creating that vision requires unity among community leaders, who will be called on to lead discussions, to formulate and refine solutions, and to build consensus among diverse groups of community members.
Once cities have involved residents in planning revitalization projects, they can continue to gain support for those projects by communicating throughout the project’s progress. “The key is to involve the people that will be affected by the projects from the start and to maintain that network, which builds consensus for the project,” Gollub says.
Will Ballard is a senior planner, Kenn Bullock is a senior landscape architect and Roger Dahnert is a senior architect for Dayton, Ohio-based Woolpert.