Front Royal revitalization meeting draws crowd

FRONT ROYAL – Interest in revitalizing Front Royal remains high as the town seeks grants to help the effort.

More than a dozen residents, property and business owners along with local officials gathered Tuesday for a public input meeting related to Front Royal’s application for funds that might help draw more interest to downtown. Planning and Zoning Director Jeremy Camp and Martha Shickle, executive director for the Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Commission, presented information about the program, the goals and filing deadlines.

But the conversation at times deviated from the focus of finding the area to revitalize to the complaints about absentee or out-of-town property owners and studies conducted in the past that did not yield results.

The town applied for funds through the federal Community Development Block Grant program, administrated by the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development. The town received the first $5,000 of a potential grant of $35,000. Front Royal, aided by the regional commission, will apply for the remaining money this month. If approved, the town would use the money to devise a revitalization plan and work on an application for up to $1 million in grants that would help Front Royal implement those goals. For instance, the state could award $700,000 to Front Royal that the town would use to help property owners enhance or improve their buildings.

As Shickle explained, the town and the commission are in the middle of studying the downtown area building stock and vacancy rates. The area selected must feature a 50 percent vacancy rate and a 25 percent blighted rate in order to qualify for the grant, Shickle said. Not all properties had been surveyed.

The town is in good shape, Shickle explained. While positive in one sense, the town’s status could limit its ability to qualify for grants in this program that targets severe cases of blight or vacancies, Shickle said.

Camp and Shickle also held the meeting to hear from the public as to what areas the effort should focus on. Narrowing the focus to Main Street and some of the surrounding properties could help increase the town’s chances of qualifying for the grant funds, Shickle said.

Should the town qualify for the ultimate award of up to $1 million, Front Royal could create a program in which property owners could receive money for building improvements. But Brandy Rosser, grants and special projects coordinator, warned that a loan program likely would not attract enough borrowers to work. Another program in the county has money but not enough interest, Rosser said.

Rosser lauded the efforts of the commission and town officials to apply for the grants. She said that the county would also help the town in any way it can. Rosser did comment that as the town looks at its revitalization, it should focus not just on tourists but also on the needs of residents who come into Front Royal and downtown every day.

Most of those in attendance agreed that the town should focus its efforts, at least as it seeks grants, on Main Street though many pointed out that blighted and empty buildings litter Royal Avenue and other downtown roads.

While many spoke positively about the effort, several voiced criticism over the town conducting another study or revitalization plan that goes nowhere. Patricia Failmezger, the owner of several properties, said the town needs to look at how to draw businesses and users into the properties that will attract people downtown.

Failmezger also criticized the process and the effort to study the matter, saying that the town has conducted studies in the past that yielded little result. Shickle pointed out that the commission and the town, for this work, are using information from some of the previous studies and reports conducted.

“I hear you,” Shickle said. “It’s incredibly frustrating to go through the same process over and over again.”

Commission workers continue to provide surveys to property and business owners, the results of which the agency will use in the application. The commission has until July 17 to file the application to receive the remaining $30,000 of the planning grant. A management team made up of town and county officials, members of the Front Royal Warren County Economic Development Authority and other groups have been working on the grant application.

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