by Aaron Layman
Vinton’s downtown corridor has small-town charm – but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t get better. To this end the town sought a federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) this past year as part of its Downtown Business District Revitalization Project. At a breakfast meeting last Friday, Town Manager Chris Lawrence and Assistant Town Manager Consuela Caudill updated citizens on the grant application status.
Lawrence prefaced his presentation by stressing Vinton’s need for becoming a “destination.” The Vinton-Roanoke County Veterans Memorial Monument outside the War Memorial building draws many people to the town, said Lawrence, who looks to Vinton’s downtown as another way to attract visitors. “People seek out that urban feel in a downtown district,” said Lawrence. While Vinton has an active downtown now, with businesses that are “always a draw,” he explained that the town government’s goal is “making a good downtown into a great downtown.”
The grant proposal was submitted for $700,000 which would include money for such projects as upgrading the Farmers Market, improving wayfinding signage, installing new crosswalks and reorienting parking. One of the largest parts of the grant would go to installing new streetlights in the downtown corridor.
The town submitted a proposal for the grant, a program of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), in March 2011. In the end, the grant request was not funded but HUD did give the town feedback regarding areas of the proposal that need to be addressed before reapplying.
Among the elements that need to be addressed to secure the CDBG funding are vacant “white elephant” properties that are not currently being put to use in the downtown area. One of the properties cited by HUD will however be utilized, when the Dunman’s Floral Supply warehouse becomes the future site of the Roanoke County Vinton Branch library. (That process could take up to a decade however.)
The purchase and improvements to the building that houses Charity Cottage Thrift Store also addressed one of HUD’s concerns. The town is still searching for a developer at the former Vinton Motors Company site, offering incentives such as a facade grant program and tax credits, enacted in partnership with Roanoke County.
Another need noted by Caudill was the presence of a “spark plug,” meaning a large investor or group of investors for that could “make a clear change in downtown.” She asked all present at the meeting to act as ambassadors for the Vinton community and bring information if they know of anyone with big ideas for downtown. “All it takes is one or two committed people,” said Caudill.
The town aims to attract investors and businesses that tie into the local economy through strategic branding, such as the video it has run on RVTV with two local businesses giving testimonials regarding the town’s assistance.
The projects can’t, however, focus solely on investment. One of the objectives of the CDBG grant is that the supported projects have other impacts, such as creating jobs and supplying housing for those with low to moderate incomes.
At the breakfast meeting a number of private citizens offered their opinions on how to best utilize the downtown area. Blue Ridge Parkway interpretive specialist and Vinton resident Peter Givens stressed the need for a “gathering place” on Washington Avenue, accessible by foot to those in bordering neighborhoods, saying “it makes for a healthy and vital community.”
Vinton resident Barney Arthur urged the town to embrace more of the region’s musical bluegrass heritage, as in communities like Floyd. Local lawyer and resident Bruce Mayer urged the town’s representatives to tap into the idea of “legacy,” in marketing to long-time residents of the town.
Before adjourning, Caudill put out a call for testimonials, in the form of written notes from businesses in support of the projects: “This is our sales pitch to the HUD,” said Caudill. There will be a public hearing regarding the CDBG grants at the Vinton Town Council meeting on Tuesday, March 6th (7pm, at the municipal building) before the reapplication deadline on March 28.