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Posted December 23, 2013 | comments Leave a comment

State awards Strasburg rest of downtown grant

By Alex Bridges

Downtown Strasburg revitalization can move forward due to grant money from a state agency.

The Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development recently advised Strasburg officials that the agency would make the rest of a $35,000 planning grant available to boost the downtown's economy. The money comes from the department through a community development block grant Strasburg is using to create an economic restructuring plan for downtown.

Strasburg's Economic Development and Planning Manager Kimberly Murray said Monday this money can help in the town's work to revitalize downtown. The town could use the funds to create a program through which business owners can improve their properties.

The town and the Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Commission plan to hold a "facilitated planning strategy" meeting at noon Jan. 9 for stakeholders and other members of the group who met over the summer to discuss the downtown's revitalization.

"We're really excited to move forward on it and pleased that they awarded us the rest of the funds," Murray said. "It's going to set some other things in motion for us."

The agency reversed an earlier decision to not award the remaining $30,000 to the town because Strasburg did not appear to meet certain criteria.

Strasburg used the initial award of $5,000 to conduct the physical inventory of structures in downtown. The town needed to take this step before the state agency would consider granting the remaining money.

Strasburg officials and the Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Commission used a system seen in other jurisdictions to survey the properties, Murray said. The state agency did not recommend any specific approach to evaluate the current conditions of properties or to survey for vacancies and, as such, made the process "very subjective," Murray said.

At the town and regional commission's request, a representative from the granting agency came to Strasburg to discuss the inventory and to look at the building stock. The state agency official told town representatives the building inventory doesn't look as favorable as the submission showed, Murray said. As a result, the official said the town does need the money remaining in the planning grant, she noted.

How the town measures vacancies also came into play. For instance, if only 500 square feet of a 3,000-square-foot building is occupied, should that building be considered occupied or vacant? Murray said officials discussed how the state measures vacancies.

"So we were very pleased they were willing to help us look at that," Murray said.

By creating a revitalization plan, the town can then apply for more grant money that Strasburg could use to implement the goals in the document. Ways the town could implement these goals can range from money set aside for fa├žade improvements to outreach and assistance to proprietors develop business plans, Murray said. The town could use implementation money to help market downtown.

"We're going to use this process to figure out where's the best place to spend our time for downtown," Murray said.

The town received confirmation in a Dec. 10 letter from Denise H. Ambrose, associate director of the department, that the agency would earmark the remaining funds for the planning project.

"We are pleased that your project has proceeded to this point and feel that your submissions satisfy the requests we made in our initial letter to you dated July 2, 2013," Ambrose states in the letter. "Our review of these items indicates that the Town and the stakeholders have demonstrated an acceptable preliminary level of interest and need in developing plans for the proposed project."

The department assigned Doug Ellis, a community development specialist, to work with the town to continue the planning efforts and to aid officials in conducting a facilitated planning strategy meeting, the letter notes.

Ambrose states in the letter that the Jan. 9 meeting should result in the creation of a work plan and a budget the town would include in its proposal for planning grant funds. The letter indicates the town would need to complete the community development block grant proposal for a planning grant that should be submitted within seven days of the meeting.

The department will review the town's grant proposal and possibly set up a contract negotiation meeting with Strasburg representatives. A contract may be issued within a week of the meeting, the letter states.

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

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