Front Royal seeks public input on downtown revival

Traffic moves along East Main and Chester Streets in Front Royal. Rich Cooley/Daily

A state program – and input from residents and businesses owners – might help Front Royal revitalize its downtown.

The town recently received the first $5,000 of a potential $35,000 grant through the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development. Front Royal partnered with the Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Commission to apply for the funds through the federal Community Development Block Grant program.

Residents and other people interested in the revitalization effort can participate in a public input meeting at 7 p.m. July 7 in the town administration building, 102 E. Main St.

The town has focused revitalization to areas in the C-2 commercial zoning district. Planning and Zoning Director Jeremy Camp said Monday that the area of the project might be narrowed further to meet the program’s blight criteria.

“It’s important to come out if you’re interested or, if nothing else, learning about what we’re doing or express your support or concern so that information can be included in the process and it’s going to help us if there’s a strong public interest,” Camp said.

Front Royal officials completed a visioning effort – an accomplishment that Camp said puts the town ahead of other localities that went through the same grant process. That visioning effort, conducted ahead of the town’s work to update the comprehensive plan, listed downtown revitalization as a priority.

The grant money allows the town and the regional agency to create a downtown revitalization plan. The town must complete several tasks by July 17 to receive the remaining $30,000 of the grant. Tasks include the development of an inventory of the town’s businesses and resources as well as the buildings.

Front Royal officials learned about a month ago that the town received preliminary approval for the revitalization project and that the department would release $5,000 of the total, commission Executive Director Martha Shickle said Monday. The $5,000 allows the town to hold the public input session, two meetings of a management team set up to oversee the work on the project. Shickle noted that in most cases the cost of the work exceeds the $5,000 initial award.

Proprietors in the C-2 district will be asked to complete a survey as part of the effort, Shickle said. Commission workers will be conducting a physical inventory of the focus area that includes taking photographs of the exterior of buildings and noting the structures’ conditions, Shickle said. The data collected through the surveys and inventory will be used to determine whether or not Front Royal qualifies for a planning grant. Specifically, the grant program would use the percentages of vacant and blighted properties to determine Front Royal’s qualification.

A management team created for the purposes of overseeing the initial work with the grant met last week. The team talked about public perception of downtown Front Royal.

“By no means is Front Royal in bad shape but we do want to demonstrate to the state that a planning grant would be beneficial, so we’re trying to note as much information as possible that would help us achieve that eligibility,” Shickle said. “Traditionally, in a grant application you kind of paint a positive picture and in this one we’re trying to note as many things that might be able to be addressed through a grant program as possible.”

Should Front Royal qualify for the remaining $30,000, the town and the commission then would move forward with the planning process. That work likely would include designing a façade improvement loan program for downtown businesses, Shickle said. Front Royal could add this program to initiatives already established by the town such as the new tourism incentive zones, Shickle said.

If the town receives the $30,000 planning grant, the commission and town officials then would work on an application for implementation funds. The town could use the money to set up the façade improvement program or other initiatives aimed at revitalizing downtown. Localities usually complete the application process by March.

Strasburg went through the same process to obtain and use a planning grant that concluded earlier this year with Town Council approving an application for implementation funds through the program. Strasburg’s efforts drew heavily on public input. Other localities in the area also have gone through the same process.

Shickle pointed out some benefits of the process.

“The state strongly encourages communities to go through the planning grant process before just applying for an implementation grant,” Shickle said. “So, from that perspective, it aligns well with what the state wants to see and it also helps to go through that planning process and be able to work through the steps necessary to get the application done.”

At the management team meeting last week, Shickle recalled that questions were raised about revitalization matters that lie outside the scope of the grant program.

“It’s a nice way to kind of gauge the community and what they want to see happen in the downtown,” Shickle said.

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