ONANCOCK, Va. (Delmarva Now) -- Onancock boosters want to see the historic waterfront community's downtown revitalized.

A meeting held to introduce the Virginia Main Street program to residents and business owners attracted around 80 people — a significant showing for this small town of 1,266.

"We're all together tonight to start the process and start learning," said one of the organizers, Onancock Town Council member Catherine Krause. "Step two of this process is to get everyone's input. That's what we need — we need a community vision."

Founded in 1680 as Port Scarborough, Onancock's historic district includes commercial, residential, church and school buildings of various architectural styles, spanning the late 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, according to a description submitted in the 1990s to the National Register of Historic Places.

Still, a number of downtown buildings that formerly housed businesses, including clothing stores and a drugstore, among others, now sit vacant — it's been a longstanding problem for the town.

The Virginia Main Street program helps communities like Onancock create a vision and develop strategies to bring new life to their downtown.

Virginia Main Street is a program of the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development.

Virginia Community Revitalization Specialist Kyle Meyer introduced the Main Street concept to attendees at the meeting, held at Market Street United Methodist Church.

"It's a grassroots revitalization strategy ... This is something that comes from the community itself," he said.

Meyer touted public-private partnerships as a bedrock of the Main Street approach, which encompasses four main elements: design, promotion, economic vitality and organization.

"It's very comprehensive about the way it approaches the downtown," he said.

Onancock Wharf in Onancock, Virginia on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018.
Onancock Wharf in Onancock, Virginia on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018.
Carol Vaughn, Delmarva Now

Meyer gave examples of other Virginia towns that have participated in the program with great success — including South Boston, where the town purchased a former tobacco warehouse and found a developer who turned it into a residential building, and Hopewell, which had eight new businesses open up downtown within a few months.

"That can dramatically change a community," he said of Hopewell's resurgence.

Residents' participation is key, he said.

"When you start to see all these great ideas that you contributed to these efforts, there's a lot of pride that surrounds it," Meyer said, adding, "You start to see an empty building that's been boarded up for a while come back to life ... That certainly uplifts that community pride ... Your buildings are your biggest asset."

BACKGROUND: What's your vision for Onancock?

While each Main Street community comes up with its own vision for what its downtown should be, Meyer stressed the importance of marketing to Millennials and Generation Z — the younger adults of today — who typically are highly tech-savvy and interested in entrepreneurship.

Generation Z, comprising those born from the mid 1990s to the early 2000s, makes up around 25 percent of the United States population — making it a larger cohort than either the Millennials or the Baby Boomers, according to Forbes magazine.

Meyer mentioned Winchester as one Virginia Main Street town that has tried to appeal specifically to younger adults by developing an app for its downtown in order to better attract those generations.

In three decades, the Virginia Main Street program has helped revitalize more than three dozen communities — including Culpeper, Franklin, Ashland, Bedford, Harrisonburg and Lynchburg, among others.

Businesses and North Street Playhouse line Market Street in Onancock, Virginia on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018.
Businesses and North Street Playhouse line Market Street in Onancock, Virginia on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018.

The program has 20 designated Main Street communities and 70 commercial district affiliates at present.

The Virginia program is one of 39 state programs in operation in the United States as of 2015, serving more than 1,000 local communities.

The national program began in 1977 when the National Trust for Historic Preservation initiated a pilot program to revitalize historic downtowns that had declined in the decades since the 1950s.

Local Main Street groups function as private, nonprofit organizations.

The focus is to use existing buildings from a bygone era to create a vibrant downtown.

A committee of four women, who have led the charge to advance the Main Street concept in Onancock, is in the process of helping create a nonprofit organization — one of the first steps in becoming a Main Street community.

After the informational meeting led by Meyer, the next step will be to survey as many people as possible — including residents, visitors, business owners and civic organization members — about their vision for Onancock, according to co-organizer Janet Fosque.

"We want to get as many people as possible's input," she said.

An online survey will be made available soon to the meeting's attendees, who signed in with their email addresses, and to others through sharing via social media and other methods.

Additionally, a paper survey will be available at locations visitors frequent in town — including the farmers market, restaurants and bed-and-breakfast inns.

"That will take a couple of months. We want to be really thorough and get a lot of input," Fosque said.

Data from the survey will help inform future steps, including visioning sessions "that help us choose what we as a town want to focus on," she said.

Meyer encouraged attendees to share the survey, when it goes out, with as many people as possible.

"The more information, the stronger strategic plan you'll have," he said.

Becoming a Main Street community isn't something that happens overnight — rather, it's a comprehensive process that can take some time — even years — to fully implement.

"It does take a while. A comprehensive approach is a long-term approach," Meyer said.

What the state program can do for localities is provide advice, training, and even financial assistance throughout the process.

That can include help with developing the nonprofit organization itself and with developing marketing plans and branding; and access to a workshop series and state and national conferences, and other benefits.

"Everybody's got a stake in downtown," Meyer said.

For more information, email OnancockMainStreet@gmail.com

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