The recent history of one of Virginia travelers’ favorite Main Street communities was recently showcased in Preservation – The Magazine of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Secret of Staunton’s Success explains how the city used historic preservation as an economic engine to transform the downtown. Starting with the restoration of a handful of facades nearly 40 years ago, Staunton’s historic preservation efforts have played a major role in the regeneration of a bustling downtown that includes wonderful Victorian-era architecture, shops, dining, two cinemas, the restored Stonewall Jackson Hotel and the world’s only recreation of London’s Blackfriars Playhouse.
Although the city’s downtown preservation efforts pre-date the establishment of the Virginian Main Street program by more than a decade, Staunton’s success demonstrates the effectiveness of an asset-based economic development philosophy that focuses on heritage assets (built and cultural history) and human assets (entrepreneurs and an engaged public). The city’s heritage assets, its Victorian architecture, its nineteenth century street grid, its position on the historic landscape of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, are obvious.
Staunton’s human assets may be less noticeable until you look at the number of small, independent businesses listed in Staunton Downtown Development Association’s Shopping and Dining Guide. Or, you stop to consider that it was an engaged public that demanded a halt to the demolition of the city’s historic buildings in the 1970s and helped launch the city’s façade restoration efforts in the 1980s. The “Save Our Bridge” campaign is the latest public effort to preserve Staunton’s heritage assets and is the first to to raise awareness with its own music video, It Takes More Than Love to Build a Bridge.
“Often when city governments think about what type of community they want to have in 15 or 20 years, historic resources and preservation get short shrift, whereas in Staunton the ethic of preservation has been integrated throughout the community as a whole. They’re using historic buildings and landscapes as tools for the future of the city,” said David J. Brown, executive vice president and chief preservation officer of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.