Strasburg misses out on downtown grant

By Alex Bridges

A lack of vacant or dilapidated buildings may hurt Strasburg’s efforts to revitalize downtown with grant money.

Strasburg and the Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Commission sought the remaining $30,000 in a $35,000 planning grant that the town could use to help implement revitalization goals.

Economic Development and Planning Manager Kimberly Murray said Friday the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development responded to Strasburg’s submission of materials for the remaining funds in the grant.

“They came back and made a statement that in order to be eligible for construction funding, applicants must demonstrate that at least 25 percent of the properties in the potential project area are physically blighted or have at least a 50 percent vacancy rate,” Murray said. “So with that statement they are now, in this letter, not funding the remaining of the planning grant.”

Murray said she and representatives with the regional commission talked about the response and hope to meet with the department to discuss the town’s next steps.

Meanwhile, the town recently hired a new downtown manager who will work with Murray. Jennifer Keck, former tourism director for Front Royal, starts Oct. 14, Murray said. Strasburg officials created the downtown manager as a part-time position along with Murray’s job in an effort to boost economic development and to revitalize the downtown. Murray noted that Keck brings her experience in tourism, promotions and working with community groups.

Keck’s hiring comes as part of Strasburg’s ongoing efforts to revitalize downtown through improvements to the streetscape and other tools.

Town officials saw the money from the state department as a way to help implement some of the ideas expressed by residents over the downtown’s future. Murray noted that the state department’s response speaks to construction funding related to implementation of the planning goals.

“We want to be sure that, one, the vacancy rates, the criteria that they’re applying to vacancy rates, only applies to first floor because that’s all we gave them,” Murray said. “We have a significantly higher vacancy rate if we used the upper floors of the building, which we feel is very vital to our downtown revitalization effort.

“Our goal is to fill all the floors, not just the first floor,” Murray added.

Town and commission staff also want to find out what kind of projects receive funding from the department and figure out the best ways to use the planning funds, she explained.

“We weren’t aware of this requirement at the time when we were preparing this or we would have been explaining that differently to the public at the meetings,” Murray said.

The town received $5,000 of the grant, considered planning funds, earlier this summer. The entire grant required that the town plan out how it would use the remaining money to implement the goals set forth in the first stage of the process. The town and commission gathered input from residents, property and business owners about downtown needs. A group of stakeholders also met to discuss ways to improve and revitalize downtown. The grant also required that the town survey buildings in downtown and identify blighted and vacant properties.

The perception has been that downtown Strasburg is filled with vacant and dilapidated buildings and that the town needs either to attract businesses to occupy the spaces or to get owners to fix or rehabilitate structures in need of repair.

Murray explained that the town used certain standards to deem properties blighted.

“What may look rundown or worn down or needs repair still may not qualify for blighted,” Murray said. “That may be even further down the scale of unsafe.”

The survey showed downtown has only a handful of vacant properties and fewer that might qualify as blighted. Town Council heard a presentation on the findings of the surveys and the input collected during the planning process.

Murray noted that staff may ask the department if the town and commission can revise the survey’s scope.

The town and commission also are working on strategies to seek other grant opportunities, Murray said.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com