Three large windows wrap around half of the room in the planning director’s office in Salem City Hall, giving Melinda Payne a continual view of the farmers market on West Main Street.
Payne has been the city’s planning director since 2006, and it was the years of sitting at her desk, peering through the window day after day, that kept Salem’s downtown life on her mind.
The city is orchestrating one of the largest campaigns to energize and enhance its downtown life in decades, with city officials, business leaders and organizations becoming involved.
There was no tourism catastrophe, no terrible economic loss that encouraged anyone to launch a downtown initiative. It was a gradual decision made after years of ideas, water cooler discussions and unsolicited plans that never came to fruition. For Payne — a longtime advocate of reshaping downtown — and other city hall employees with the Main Street view, it was having to see it every day.
As downtown areas in cities across the country have grown in popularity — becoming major new tourism destinations in the process — cities have put a new focus on developing them. However, up until now, Salem has not.
A study was done in 1970 showing that residents found Salem’s downtown unappealing in most aspects, and it was suggested that the city focus on efforts to change this.
The city council at the time looked at the study but did nothing in response, according to Payne, who still has a copy of the study. Since then, a lot of the retail variety, landscape and streetscape have not changed much. As small localities like Floyd and Rocky Mount have seen an increase in tourism from a renewed focus on their main thoroughfares, Salem thinks it can do the same.
“We want to be a destination, “ Payne said. “It has charm and we like that charm. But we want to get a vibe going.”
The heart of the city
Downtown is “the heart of the business district,” said city councilwoman Jane Johnson, who is involved with the project. She owns a jewelry store on South College Street and doesn’t like to use the term “revitalize” for what they want to do.
“We already have a great downtown,” she said. “We can still make it even better.”
A lot of people involved in Salem’s downtown plans don’t like the term revitalize. After all, Salem is known for its civic pride, from its Salem windbreakers to its city council that votes in lockstep the vast majority of the time. Yet many concede downtown could handle some renovations, especially for the long term.
“There are some folks that are happy with how downtown looks. There are some folks who feel it needs a facelift,” Payne said. “What we want to do is get our downtown more sustainable for the future.”
Avoiding the revitalization label, Salem officials are calling it “the downtown plan,” but most of the details are yet to come. The first part of the plan includes gathering information from the public. An online survey was set up in mid-January to solicit ideas from residents and visitors. So far more than 300 people have participated.
On Jan. 20, the city hosted its first public information session at Salem Baptist Church, one of seven churches in the downtown area. The open house was designed to encourage residents to talk about the city and to advertise the survey.
Fliers with the survey have been placed in establishments throughout the city to get as much feedback as possible. With this information, the city’s economic development team will devise a plan of exactly what it will focus on. The plan will be sent to the public before the end of the summer and sent to the city council in the fall.
People involved believe the plans will include improvements to the aesthetics of downtown, such as adding new lighting, landscaping or outdoor dining options.
The planning office is already looking for grant money for this as well as assistance for downtown businesses on projects such as facade improvements. There are also four city-owned buildings downtown that could be used in different ways.
City manager Kevin Boggess said downtown development plans will have a high priority this year. He said any city’s downtown area is dynamic by nature and always changing, and Salem’s downtown goal is to prepare the city for national trends.
“We are doing our best to see what’s coming down the pipeline,” he said.
The city can only do so much, since most of the properties are privately owned, but Johnson said the hope is that if the city and small business owners renovate some properties, it will motivate others to do the same.
Salem, she said, doesn’t need a lot of big developers to come in and spend millions to renovate buildings. “We just need some small business owners to be involved,” she said.
Downtowns are changing
The downtown plan just became public in January, but it has been in the works for a while. An economic development team was created in 2012 with several city officials and two members of Salem City Council — Johnson and Lisa Garst. Payne said everyone seemed to acknowledge the need to energize downtown.
Focusing on downtown areas and community gathering spaces has been a national trend.
“Previously there was an exodus from downtown to suburban office parks,” said Beth Doughty, executive director of the Roanoke Regional Partnership, which focuses on economic development in the area.
Now, she said, there seems to be a “paradigm shift” across the nation where more businesses are committed to an urban center.
During one economic development meeting, Garst said Salem has to prepare for the “cultural shift” of younger generations who want the experience of downtown shopping and urban living.
On the local level, Roanoke has seen the growth of downtown living explode in the last decade as developers have turned vacant buildings into new apartments. The towns of Vinton and Rocky Mount have also directed more efforts to revitalization in their city cores.
“Downtown is a neighborhood. Any neighborhood you want to look as great as you possibly can,” Doughty said. “Downtown is a more visible neighborhood than anywhere else.”
Downtown Salem currently has about 19 buildings off Main Street that house residential apartments, but many of the buildings are mixed use and the apartments are hidden by storefronts. The number surprised Ben Tripp, a Salem city planner, who surveyed the core of downtown for the project.
“There’s a mix we didn’t have before,” he said. “We’ve gotten newer and nicer things downtown. And that’s a thing we want to continue.”
Tripp surveyed each downtown building to determine its use. Initially he looked at the properties on Main Street from Thompson Memorial Drive to near Chestnut Street and Lewis Avenue. But, he said, a lot of people would consider downtown to cover more ground than that.
Part of the information-gathering stage includes determining a more specific definition of where downtown lies. So far the survey indicates a consensus that downtown starts near the Salem Museum to the east, but the definition gets murky when going west .
Getting the plans started
This past fall, Salem’s economic development team brought together about 25 people with downtown interests, from business owners to church leaders, and hosted several meetings about forming a plan before the idea went public.
“We had to get responses from the business owners down there,” Garst said. “We had to get them involved from the beginning.”
Mike Pace, an attorney for Roanoke College, has been heavily involved in the initiative.
Just off Main Street, the college is one of the main focal points of the downtown area, and its more than 2,000 students are frequent visitors to the area.
The college has purchased multiple properties in the past few years and is about to renovate two buildings on North College Street, a project that will include putting down paved brick on the sidewalk.
“We want to recruit, attract and retain students,” Pace said.
He said if Salem adds to the appeal of the downtown area, it will help the college. He said Roanoke College arranges for its students to have organized nights in both Salem and Roanoke because those areas will appeal to them.
“We want to give people a reason to stop here,” he said. “A big part of this is the restaurants.”
Bob Rotanz, the owner of Mac and Bob’s, has maintained his restaurant for more than 35 years on West Main Street. He loved the idea of a downtown plan, thinking that more restaurants and more shopping would help everyone.
“You have to be an ambassador for downtown,” he said, adding that he has tried to recruit businesses to the area.
Some events will lead people to visit that part of Salem, he said, but people want retail and restaurants to keep them coming back.
Not everyone sees the need to change anything in Salem, though. Payne said one thing they have noticed from survey respondents and casual conversation is that older generations of Salem residents think downtown Salem is fine just the way it is and don’t care for any changes.
Multiple people involved with the project said they believed downtown needed a hotel. Some said they wanted more diverse retail. Tripp’s unofficial survey of downtown turned up only about nine vacant spaces available, not including the outer edges of Main Street. Most of the properties were residential or office space.
Just a few doors down from Mac and Bob’s, in the 300 block of East Main Street, a large older building currently for lease once housed Salem Theatre. It now sits mostly empty, except for Lucky’s restaurant in a portion of it. Several people involved with the downtown plan hope to see the building and others like it re-purposed.
Developer Faisal Khan, known for rehabbing the Ponce de Leon hotel and the YMCA building in downtown Roanoke, said he had looked at a property in Salem.
He said downtown Salem has a lot of potential, especially because of its proximity to the college. But he said he would like to see its historic district expanded.
Tax credits for rehabbing historic buildings are wildly beneficial for developers, he said, and so are government incentives. Having cooperative city officials has been important for his projects.
“Without general help from the city government, it can’t get done,” he said.