Overnight Success, 20 Years In The Making

Guest Blogger Ken Heath, Director of Community and Economic Development, has been working for downtown revitalization since 1994 with the Town of Marion. Read his inspirational words and how it has taken over twenty years to get where the Town is today. Working hard at revitalization every day, and the job is never done. 

It’s nice to be in the catbird’s seat.  I remember starting as Marion’s first Main Street manager in November 1994, when none of us had a clue what we were doing – especially me!  My board was great.  They had drawn the proverbial line in the sand, decided our downtown was worth saving, set up the fledgling finances, and, crazy as it sounds, they put their faith in me to figure out how to turn things around.  Virginia Main Street was a Godsend!  The training, networking, resources gave me a channel for my unbridled passion for my hometown, and we thought we were off to the races!

Downtown Marion. Photo credit: Ken Heath
Downtown Marion. Photo credit: Ken Heath

But reality was waiting on our Main Street.  Almost daily, another mom and pop shuttered their doors, closed shop.  We were on the ropes, staggered by the national economy and our own community’s tendency to take what money we had out of town to shop.  Marion, as we knew it, was circling the drain.

We survived, thanks to a lot of hairdressers and folks like me who didn’t know better but were willing to give it a try.  We programmed special events – not because we loved grilling hot dogs, but because we needed the community to come back downtown for ANY reason at that point.  We believed if we could get our community to love downtown again, we could get business back downtown again. And then we could get visitors to come, and more businesses.  But we had to first stem the tide, help us believe again.

By good luck, by providence, by stumbling into it, Marion has held it together through the dark times.  We – our community – celebrate our successes, share our heartaches, and wear our passion on our sleeves.  We take audacious dreams and help foster them, incubating them with our energies and resources.  We don’t say no, we say “how can we help make this happen”.  And through it all, we believe.

When folks come to visit our downtown for “Song of the Mountains” or to come back for a class reunion, we’re flooded with such nice, kind compliments about our town.  Our downtown is nearly full.  Soon, we’ll be a beehive of activity, with another round if Streetscape improvements, new private reinvestment to repurpose historic buildings into new downtown living, new shops and restaurants, summer concerts and farmers market and shows at our Lincoln Theatre and classes at our Wayne Henderson School of Appalachian Arts and another semester of college at our downtown Summit Center for Higher Education.  Folks compliment us on doing it “overnight”.

Anything but.

Marion’s success is part training, part providence, part luck, and part stubbornness.  We didn’t know better.  We didn’t know not to dream big.  We took the tools and resources and blessings offered and went to work, only pulling our noses away from the grindstone long enough to set our sights toward the next mountaintop we wanted to climb.  We worked together, sweated together, cried together.  And through to all, we learn, we strengthen, we come together.  And we dream.  Audacious dreams.  Bold dreams.  Crazy dreams.

For everyone believing in the overnight success, keep on believing.  It’s dawn again in Marion.  And the sun keeps coming up, every day, to something else new and exciting.

If it can happen in Marion, it can happen in your town.  It takes faith, pride, believers and schemers and dreamers.  It takes a strong constitution, a hard head, a bulldog’s tenacity to never let go.  It takes a team.  And it takes a leader.  Someone who’s very life and breath and soul is in your downtown.  It’s somebody who can shoulder the criticism, listen to the complains, nurture the ideas and hopes and dreams, orchestrate it all to be a beautiful symphony while helping each musician believe it to be their own idea.  Maybe it’s your mayor, your Main Street director, your shop owner.  Find your spoon.  Give them the training and resources, share your audacious dreams.  And support them.  With time, finances, vocal support.  Make it happen.

And come see us in Marion.  Come back often.  Good times are here.  But the best is yet to come.  (And always will be!)