By Sally Voth
Winchester is inviting the public to "come out and enjoy the community's living room" May 17 and 18 as the Old Town Mall's renovation project is celebrated.
Jennifer Bell, Winchester downtown manager, said that the $7.1 million project is nearly complete. What's not finished -- such as landscaping and public restrooms -- will be by the time of the celebration.
Begun over the winter, the project includes the replacement of century-old water and sewer lines underneath the pedestrian mall, plus the addition of the restrooms, landscaping, street furniture, gateways and children's splash pads.
Many might be relieved by the public bathrooms.
"The downtown businesses strongly requested that," Bell said.
The restrooms, the streetscape and decorative improvements will cost about $700,000 and initially come from the city's general fund, which will then be reimbursed by taxes levied on businesses in the downtown's primary and secondary assessment districts, she said.
Bell said the downtown area was broken into the two different segments years ago, with those opening on Loudoun Street between Piccadilly and Cork streets paying the higher rate. She noted there is more wear and tear that occurs in those areas than in typical residential ones, and the merchants have different goals and needs relating to infrastructure improvements, special events and the like.
The remaining $6.4 million of the project is coming from utility revenue bonds, according to a city news release.
The renovation celebrations will kick off at 4 p.m. May 17 with a ribbon cutting at the Piccadilly Street entrance, a brick presentation and plaque dedication.
Events begin the next day at noon with an ice cream social; music in front of the Old Civil War Courthouse; historic and architectural tours by Patrick Ferris; family activities, including a magician; Shenandoah Discovery Museum activities and face painting; and open houses at the Godfrey Miller Home, Bright Box Theater and Masonic Lodge, according to the release.
"We now have the most beautiful walking mall in Virginia," Bell said.
She said the city was thrilled it was open in time for last week's Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival.
The whole project went much better than anticipated by Phil Brewer, who with his wife owns the Wilkins Shoe Center on the mall.
"It didn't affect our business as bad as I thought it would," he said. "It really did well over the winter."
Brewer credited the media with keeping residents informed of what was happening.
"I think a lot of it also had to do with the people that worked on the project, HRI," he said. "I'm going to tell you, you could be here at 6 o'clock in the morning, they were working, or 10 o'clock at night, they were wrapping it up."
Plus, the mall now looks "awesome," according to Brewer.
"I think it's really going to bring a lot of people to downtown Winchester," he said.
The mall now reminds him of shopping downtown when he was a boy.
"It just kind of gives you that homey feeling," Brewer said. "I wouldn't want to be any place else located in Winchester at this point in time."
Contact staff writer Sally Voth at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or firstname.lastname@example.org