Bringing Back the Wonder
By Caitlin Davis
Aug 3, 2012, 16:31
Efforts to revitalize downtown Hopewell are getting a shot of life from a graduate student with a plan.
Garet Prior recently earned his masters through Virginia Commonwealth University’s Master of Planning and Urban Development program, submitting a downtown plan for the city as part of the process.
Prior sees a future for downtown Hopewell and wants to help develop it.
“I would love to work in Hopewell or within the region to work on seeing this plan through,” Prior said.
Looking towards the future while preserving the past has been Prior’s approach since taking on this project. Prior, who began his career as a history teacher, said making plans to revitalize a community has been an interest of his for many years.
Prior saw a need in Hopewell for a plan to bring life back to downtown. He said Hopewell has experienced much of what many other communities around the nation have experienced over the past few years.
“The market has passed over, there’s been neglect,” Prior said. “I want to bring interest back. I think it is a challenge but it is a market that people can easily invest in.”
Prior’s plan for Hopewell is based on the “Main Street Approach.” This approach focuses on historic preservation and revitalization, breathing new life into old buildings. This national approach looks at how to restructure a downtown community to turn it back into a economically functional entity.
“We can take some of the old and turn it into the new,” Prior said.
Prior’s plan, which can be found online at thewondercity.wordpress.com, includes Hopewell’s assets and liabilities. The small town atmosphere, access to the riverfront, historic buildings and the layout of downtown, as well as the streetscaping, are all listed as positive attributes.
“The unique thing about Hopewell is the access to growing metro areas like Richmond and Hampton Roads,” Prior said.
Prior also said Hopewell has an advantage in the job market as compared to the national trends.
“The jobs base in Hopewell has been steady even though the market has declined,” Prior said.
Hopewell also has a large regional hospital, John Randolph Medical Center, and three large national banking chains in the city as well.
“There are investors in the community,” Prior said. “There’s a lot to pull from, we just have to figure out how to work all these things and use our best efforts together.”
Prior conducted quality of life surveys with different groups in Hopewell, including seniors at Hopewell High School and business owners in the community. He also conducted an online survey of personnel at Fort Lee, to develop a sense of what was lacking in the community.
Prior identified some of the liabilities for downtown, which include the perception that it is unsafe, the large number of vacant buildings and the lack of retail options.
Concerns about safety were one of the most prevalent liabilities cited in Prior’s surveys. He said the safety of a downtown area might be all about perception.
“The general view for all small towns is that the downtown area is dangerous,” Prior said.
Aside from the surveys and research to determine the strengths and weaknesses of downtown Hopewell, Prior also developed a plan to remedy downtown.
“People have said, do we wipe it all out and start from the beginning,” Prior said.
Among Prior’s recommendations were establishing a clear plan for future development, improving the gateway design leading into downtown, redeveloping the former human services building into a parking deck and expanding the membership and reach of the Hopewell Downtown Partnership,
Prior is also working on trying to get more businesses in Hopewell to go viral; he said that is one of the keys to the future of downtown.
“The promotion through here is to actively mediate businesses on the Internet,” Prior said.
Some of the best websites for business promotion include Travelocity, Google and Facebook, he said.
“That’s the bare minimum, but that’s where I see myself working with local business and sitting with them in the store, if need be, to help,” Prior said.
Prior is hoping to keep his vision for Hopewell going strong. He is working to secure a full-time position within the planning and development career field and hopes he will be able to find a job close to Hopewell, so he can help see the plan that helped him earn his degree become a reality.
“I’m trying to continue the conversation as long as I can, as long as I am still around the area,” Prior said.
Prior has presented his plan to council and held a meeting in the Beacon for the community on July 24. He said he has heard some positive feedback and that has helped him move forward.
“All of this is to really try and to really get people together and to get people talking,” Prior said.