Harrisonburg Takes On The Citizen: Part Two

As part of our first birthday celebrations, we asked community members to submit a piece about Harrisonburg – it’s past, present, and future. This is part two in the series.

There is Power In Place

By Andrea L. Dono, Executive Director, Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance

Paris may be more than 4,000 miles away, but the conversations around how the recently burned Notre-Dame cathedral should be rebuilt have relevance right here in Harrisonburg, right now. Some historians want to replicate the fallen French spire. Some architects want to design a bold new one that stands on its own merit. Regardless of how it is resolved, this conversation tells us that buildings matter to a city’s identity. Harrisonburg is no different. 

We might not have historic buildings of the same caliber of Notre-Dame, but our churches are spectacular. And, it’s cool to eat pizza in a former livery or go duckpin bowling in a former autobody shop. The names stenciled on the apartment doors in the Keezell Building recognize the businesses that once occupied the offices. The natural light that floods into Larkin Arts from the historic transom windows is as warm as the people who work there.

All of these places were worth saving. They tell our story. They are unique places that people associate only with Harrisonburg. For locals, they serve as the backdrop to where we make memorable experiences in the heart of our community. For tourists, they motivate them to make the trip (which is great since heritage tourists stay longer and spend more). 

Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance (HDR) got our start after residents grew alarmed at seeing historic buildings being torn down and businesses closing downtown. Our job was to find a way to bring downtown back to life and our first step was saving the historic buildings.  

Two years after we started, downtown was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2005. That was a big deal. Property owners could then afford building rehabilitations thanks to historic tax credits. We had a tool to get downtown back in shape and then could attract entrepreneurs and businesses. 

HDR has always been downtown’s small business and historic building champion because those two things give us our competition edge and make downtown Harrisonburg different from other towns and from strip malls everywhere – in other words – worth visiting. They define our place. There is power in place. And our identity as a place derives from these buildings 

As a community, it is our responsibility to protect the irreplaceable. Once a building is gone, it is gone forever. It is my hope that as downtown continues to grow and evolve, our strength will be in creatively reusing the historic buildings that made our community what it was, what it is today, and what it can be in the future. 

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