Orange Continues to Blossom!

Our guest blogger, Zachary Whitlow (pictured left), is a Community Revitalization Specialist at the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), working closely with the agency’s Virginia Main Street (VMS) program and Rural Community Development Initiative (RCDI). He loves helping communities across Virginia unleash the power of small-scale, grassroots revitalization to build a sense of place and ensure economic vitality!

Recently, I visited the Town of Orange to tour the community’s local Main Street district alongside Charlotte Cole, Executive Director of Love Orange Virginia (LOVe), introduce myself to local officials and facilitate the Main Street organization’s 2021 board retreat. Since the onset of the pandemic, travel has been limited for DHCD staff, but it’s been great to have an opportunity to explore communities again, especially those that I’ve never visited, like Orange!

Approaching the Town of Orange, the drive couldn’t have been more pleasant. Scheduled to arrive rather early, it was beautiful to witness the sun having risen slightly over rolling hills and open vistas as I traveled along scenic country roads. Before arriving, I could already feel the sense of place that America’s roots authentically exude, while also knowing that I wasn’t very far from the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Indeed, it was a warm welcome to say the least!

Upon arriving, I parked close to LOVe headquarters where I planned to meet Charlotte to kick off the tour of downtown Orange. After parking the car and preparing to walk over to the local Main Street program’s office, my attention was immediately drawn to an equestrian-themed mural depicting a group of horsemen, led by their master of foxhounds, actively engaged in the sport of fox hunting. Reflecting on the scene, I remembered that the county’s countryside is home to various horse farms / elegant equestrian properties.

The first stop on the tour of downtown Orange was the site of what will be a new park that commemorates the important contributions of African-Americans to the Town of Orange and Orange County, specifically shedding light on the historic Black Business District. Excitingly, LOVe received a $25,000 Downtown Investment Grant (DIG) from Virginia DHCD to help fund the project, which will create a beautiful park / thinking space that features interactive panels with QR codes for residents and visitors to view online stories that present an inclusive view of the community’s history.

Around the corner from the soon-to-be commemorative park, Charlotte led us to the Robertson Plaza, a beautifully landscaped plaza that features a large fountain (splash pad) where children and others can play in the intermittent jets of water or simply relax while strolling through downtown Orange. In 2007, Anne Robertson, or Russ as she was more commonly known in the community, worked alongside LOVe, one of several organizations she supported, to create the plaza in memory of her late husband, A. Stuart Robertson, Jr., and their daughters, Gwyn, Ellis and Lucy B (statue). I love seeing these type of places for respite amongst the hustle and bustle of downtown in Main Street communities.

After admiring the Robertson Plaza, I couldn’t help but notice the historic Orange Train Station, built more than 100 years ago, that sat prominently on the corner of Short Street and East Main Street (beside the Robertson Plaza). While passenger train service was discontinued roughly 50 years ago, the train station was renovated in 1997, becoming the home of the Orange County Department of Tourism and Visitors Bureau, which features an awesome kiosk that offers visitors a great deal of information pertaining to the town’s history, the railroad depot and much more!

After a quick / fun history lesson, Charlotte and I made our way around downtown, and I was excited to visit The Arts Center in Orange, a venue for artists and artisans to work, teach, exhibit and sell their artwork. It’s also a place for the community to learn skills, and to participate in, as well as enjoy, the arts. Established in 1997, the Center began by offering classes and having small gallery shows in a series of buildings. In 2001, Bob Morin, retired businessman and former town mayor, graciously donated his building on Main Street to the Center, allowing them to expand programs and attendance, as well as respond to growing demand from local organizations and other entities to collaborate on projects and programs. The ceramic tiles seen on the building’s façade (pictured left) were created by county children to draw attention to the arts, and it was great to see the artistic downtown anchor finding ways to engage youth, embrace the community’s culture and outwardly celebrate local creativity!

Leaving the Center, Charlotte and I popped into a couple other eclectic small businesses, such as Finders Keepers, before heading to our next stop, the former Earl’s Glass Shop. As we walked, I found myself looking up to view the expressive and eye-catching banners displayed throughout the commercial district. Each banner draws attention to varying community attributes, such as Orange’s lively arts scene or local flavor, and I loved the call-to-action, “Keep It Local, Keep It Orange.” Undoubtedly, Orange has created an effective banner system to increase brand awareness and promote the community’s greatest assets, and they’re a great example for those looking to do the same!

I had been excited to set my eyes on the former Earl’s Glass Shop building because the local Main Street program was recently awarded a $25,000 Financial Feasibility Grant (FFG) to determine the highest and best use the vacant property located at the southwest corner of Orange’s historic commercial district. LOVe believes the building could potentially support artisans and/or craftspersons that are looking to enter the marketplace, as well as small-scale manufacturing. Local changemakers view the property as a means to stimulate growth, and I look forward to receiving project updates in the future!

The time was nearing for my scheduled appointment to meet with local officials so Charlotte and I circled back to the heart of downtown to head over to town hall. But, along the way, I stumbled upon another respite area, called Taylor Park. Lovingly landscaped, the park features a fountain, benches and a raised stage area for events, such as special musical performances. The center fountain was gifted by the Dolley Madison Garden Club and sculpted by Gordonsville-based Raindrops in Virginia. Next to the park, a soft-toned mural on the side of Atlantic Union Bank depicts a banking scene reminiscent of the early 1900’s. Yet again, the town offers residents and visitors alike a beautiful space to relax!

After my meeting with Greg Woods, Town Manager, and John Cooley, Director of Community Development, who are both passionate and committed local changemakers that work tirelessly to ensure the vitality of Orange, I had to scurry over to Madison at the Mill so that I could facilitate the local Main Street organization’s board retreat, which was my first in-person training in nearly two years. Before the retreat began, I needed to regain my energy. Charlotte and I had worked up an appetite touring the downtown, but given the time constraints of the afternoon, lunch had to be quick! Charlotte grabbed a bit to eat for the both of us from Forked on Main, and I enjoyed a delicious grilled caesar salad with seared chicken that was the best caesar salad I’ve ever eaten. The house-made croutons were incredible!

The location for the retreat was on the top floor of a 100 year old Silk Mill. In the 1920’s, American Silk Mills, Inc. made silk that would eventually become parachutes for both world wars, and when they went out of business, the prominent downtown building became a dilapidated property in Orange, Virginia. In the late 1980’s, Kent Higginbotham, the father of LOVe’s current board president, Robert Higginbotham, purchased the Mill, seeking to revitalize the building and ensure its vitality. He did exactly that, and today, the Mill houses restaurants and other small businesses!

The better half of the afternoon was spent training LOVe board members, allowing them to take a step back from their day-to-day demands and activities for concentrated discussion and strategic thinking about the organization’s long-term goals. Board members reviewed how the time-tested Main Street Approach guides their mission-driven work, discussed effective board governance and underwent express work planning to identify worthwhile projects and initiatives that align with the organization’s mission and Transformation Strategies.

The training helped LOVe board members better understand the fundamentals of work planning, build consensus and create or add value to the local Main Street program’s roadmap to revitalization – the work plan!

While there were relatively new faces and voices around the table, it was incredibly inspiring to see a group of highly driven individuals excited to work together and create positive and sustainable change within the Town of Orange. I’m quite confident that board members are primed and ready to tackle anything that comes their way!

The day ended with a social event where local residents, business owners, elected officials and others gathered together to learn more about the local Main Street organization, hear about ideas shared during the board retreat and discover ways to work together and/or help volunteer to make Orange a better place to live, work and play! Reflecting on the what I saw during my tour of downtown and what I had witnessed during the training session, I feel as though Orange continues to blossom as the local Main Street organization embraces a new beginning. Opportunities for new growth and development are abound, and I’m certain that we’ll be hearing a lot more about Orange in the coming months and years. Stay tuned!

Fox Hunt | Photo Credit: Taber Andrew Bain