Following the success of Main Street Fairmont’s recent Downtown Developers’ Tour, the Northern West Virginia Brownfields Assistance Center at West Virginia University wants to take the idea across the state.
Kate Greene, executive director of Main Street, said the concept for the Downtown Developers’ Tour came out of a successful experience in bringing a business to Fairmont. Main Street Fairmont introduced an investor/potential property owner to a local startup entrepreneur, and together they were able to rehabilitate a building and give the business a space to call its home.
As a result, Main Street thought of expanding upon this idea. With so many buildings in the city that could benefit from adaptive reuse, the organization started talking about holding a tour for developers, Greene said.
Main Street Fairmont hosted the two-day Downtown Developers’ Tour on June 11 and 12. A variety of professionals, including regional architects, designers, developers, lenders and business owners, were part of the event.
The conference was held at the Gatherings at 216 Monroe St. downtown with networking opportunities and presentations focused on the process of revitalizing Fairmont and economic development opportunities for the Friendly City, Marion County and the region. As part of the activities, participants traveled to different structures within the city’s historic district for guided tours.
“The success exceeded our expectations,” Greene said. “There was a great representation of interest.”
Fairmont showcased buildings that it feels are an important part of the city’s fabric and should be preserved, she said. Developers came from Fairmont and Marion County as well as Kentucky, New York, Washington, D.C., and other areas.
“They were just in awe of the potential,” Greene said. “It was really powerful and it made a really big impression on people from outside of this area.”
She said discussions also took place about the value of development on the upper floors of buildings and the possibility of and need for affordable, market rate housing downtown.
Because of the Downtown Developers’ Tour, several of the downtown buildings are getting some new attention. The next step is to continue these relationships with developers, provide the interested parties with any information that they may need, and keep searching for likely tennants for the structures, Greene said.
Main Street Fairmont got connected with the Northern West Virginia Brownfields Assistance Center through the Firehouse Studios project, which was featured on the tour and gained interest from a local developer, she said. The idea behind the Firehouse Studios project is to redevelop the old fire station into an artists’ collaborative for music and theater.
Main Street Fairmont recently received a grant through the West Virginia Redevelopment Collaborative for technical assistance and work on reuse plans for the historic, vacant firehouse, and the City of Fairmont is supporting the project. The Redevelopment Collaborative is a program of the Northern West Virginia Brownfields Assistance Center, which is housed in the West Virginia Water Research Institute at West Virginia University’s National Research Center for Coal and Energy.
The mission of the center is to promote the reuse of underutilized properties that have some perception of environmental concern and an impediment to development, said director Patrick Kirby. The entity takes a very liberal, flexible and broad approach, working on anything from old factories to former schools. It provides technical assistance and resources as it focuses on total redevelopment projects with communities and also offers brownfields expertise.
In addition to the Firehouse Studios project, the Northern West Virginia Brownfields Assistance Center has worked with either the City of Fairmont or Main Street Fairmont on a number of other individual projects downtown, such as the Masonic Temple and the YMCA building, he said. The center has invested quite a bit of money in Fairmont through its programming.
Kirby said the center attended the Downtown Developers’ Tour and learned a lot from that experience, such as the time and energy required to put on this type of event and the importance of the involvement of local sponsors.
Oftentimes, when communities in West Virginia think of developers, a negative connotation may come to mind as people imagine someone from the outside coming in and making big changes. However, Main Street attracted regional business people who were interested in Fairmont, he said.
“They were able to have a clear message that Fairmont is transforming and this is the time to buy in, and it made a big impression on folks,” Kirby said.
Carrie Staton, coordinator for the West Virginia Redevelopment Collaborative, explained that Main Street Fairmont did all of the outreach to bring the different parties together for the tour. This kind of event can help communities build their network of investors, developers and interested parties and become familiar with all of those potential stakeholders, she said.
Main Street collaborated with local governmental entities to welcome the attendees, explain the city’s goals for downtown, and provide contacts, Kirby said. The organization created a positive energy that people wanted to be a part of, and it opened the eyes of the participants.
“It provides positive rumors,” he said. “It shares the information about what’s going on with these different projects.”
Kirby said the Northern West Virginia Brownfields Assistance Center is now trying to use Main Street’s event as a model and is encouraging other communities in the state to organize similar tours. Kirby is especially urging two specific West Virginia communities to hold tours this fall.
The people of Fairmont can serve as references for the communities interested in holding their own tours, he said.
The Brownfields Assistance Center often showcases projects throughout the state, but doesn’t showcase whole communities. Fairmont’s event was great because downtown was working as a whole toward revitalization with the realization that it will take developers to make the individual projects happen, Staton said.
“I’m just excited for Fairmont, the projects that are happening,” Kirby said.
He hopes to see more success stories in Fairmont in the next year.
Greene said seeing the Northern West Virginia Brownfields Assistance Center respond in this way to the Downtown Developers’ Tour confirmed that the efforts of Main Street and its partners had made an impact.
“We’re in such a habit of looking at our old buildings as being eyesores that we don’t recognize the potential,” she said. “Every empty building is an opportunity.”
Some buildings may have structural issues, but evaluating those facilities to determine if they are viable is part of the process. There are some great opportunities to reinvest in Fairmont’s history, Greene said.
“We have an authentic downtown,” she said. “We have lost some beautiful buildings over the years, but we still have some great stock.”
Greene encouraged people to get involved and to continue following Main Street’s work, which is done with the help of partners at the city and county levels and also through collaboration with higher education.
“We are trying to be visible because we want people to see the change that is happening,” she said.
Email Jessica Borders at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @JBordersTWV.