Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance earns accolades for response during pandemic

File photo by Eric Gorton

By Eric Gorton, Senior Contributor

Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance has received two state honors through the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development’s annual awards program, including an “MVP” award for its response to help small businesses through the pandemic.

The nonprofit, which works to attract people and businesses downtown, also learned that the Big L Tire building renovation, which took place during the pandemic, was recognized as the “Best Adaptive Reuse Project.” HDR nominated the project for excellence in transforming a historic structure and the project’s impact on the northside of downtown.

“Our team is really proud of HDR’s pandemic response because it was creative and holistic,” said Andrea Dono, executive director of HDR, in an email. “We tried to provide help from every angle we could think of. It really was a product of a talented, creative team who was driven by our mission to support our community and downtown businesses and make sure Harrisonburg and our district would emerge stronger from it.”

When the pandemic hit Harrisonburg in March 2020, HDR developed a multi-pronged response that included participating in a task force with area economic development leaders to film a public service announcement about supporting local businesses and raising more than $100,000 for small business recovery grants.

Other measures included implementing a small business retention program; sending businesses weekly emails that included the latest safety guidelines; creating an online resource for customers to track businesses’ modified hours, e-commerce options and safety protocols; and developing online fundraisers and campaigns to support the community’s independently owned small businesses.

In announcing the MVP award during a virtual awards ceremony in December, Kyle Meyer, a revitalization planner at the VDHCD, said, “While everyone should be commended for their inspiring efforts, one Advancing Virginia Main Street organization was able to maintain quality of life and cultivate an innovative and entrepreneurial-based approach for recovery that insured its downtown district remained a social, commercial and cultural center throughout the pandemic.”

HDR announced the awards in a press release in mid-February, close to a formal celebration among downtown revitalization programs, Dono said.

HDR is one of 27 Advancing Virginia Main Street organizations in the state, which is the highest tier of participation in the Virginia Main Street program, said Alexis Carey, public relations director for VDHCD.

Dono said the strategies used to support businesses during the pandemic were primarily modifications to the strategies HDR used beforehand.

“Everything that HDR does follows the Main Street Approach to Downtown Revitalization,” Dono said. “This will always guide us in our work. This guided us when developing our pandemic response, it just guided us to make some tweaks.”

For example, she said, HDR always has “shop local” campaigns and “support small” messaging, but in 2020 it worked with partners to run “shop local” TV commercials for the first time. “It was so impactful, we raised money to do another commercial in 2021,” Dono said.

Another modification, she said, was the frequency of providing information to downtown businesses and the nature of the messaging.

“We were constantly bombarding them with clarifications on PPE and governor’s orders, grant opportunities, and more in 2020. While they are getting a breather from constant emails, we always are connected with downtown businesses and communicating information and news. That will never change.”

A modification to its “Bricks & Clicks” business retention program even received some recognition from the Main Street America program.

A detailed compilation of HDRs pandemic efforts is listed on the Virginia Main Street website.

As for nominating the Big L Tire renovation for the “Best Adaptive Reuse Project” award, Dono said, “We love how vibrant the Sagebird-Magpie block has become in a relatively short amount of time. When you combine great business ideas with great products and cool buildings, you end up with special destinations that stand out from the rest.”

The renovation took place in 2019 and 2020, turning the former tire repair shop that was built in the 1940’s at North Liberty and West Gay streets into “one of the hippest spots in Downtown Harrisonburg,” according to a write-up on the Virginia Main Street website.

“Led by Kirsten Moore, who acted as the project manager for the rehabilitation, a community-based development team brought the approximately $1.8 million bird-themed redevelopment to life. The rundown building was transformed into a sleek white building with exposed brick and an edgy industrial vibe inside.”

Moore, in an email, said, “To receive recognition for my first commercial renovation project, especially in a category filled with projects by seasoned developers is a big honor. That this building is also home to my own businesses that have made such an impact on our community and the face of downtown, makes it even more special.”

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