A keen focus on history and the future were discussed as possible strategies for making downtown Charles Town a bigger commercial, social and entertainment draw during a community forum held last recently at Charles Washington Hall.
There were many broad-stroke ideas brought up at the meeting, including expanding Charles Town’s current base of arts and cultural activities along with establishing more family friendly social venues and creating more downtown living options.
But history, namely the city’s unique legacy involving George Washington’s family, took front seat.
Kathy La Plante, a program coordinator for Main Street America, a nonprofit organization assisting Charles Town with shaping the future of the city’s central downtown district, pointed out that in the way of its rich history, Charles Town has something special to offer visitors.
Charles Town is named for its founder, Charles Washington, who was the youngest brother of the first president of the United States, George Washington.
Happy Retreat, the mansion of Charles Washington that has become a community as well as a historical venue, was highlighted as a tourist draw benefiting the downtown.
The mansion, now a nonprofit promoting local history, can be a centerpiece to further promote and tell the story of the Washington family in the city and the county.
La Plante explained that Charles Town should consider how to better tell and more widely promote its special and unique history — particularly its early legacy of having so many members from George Washington’s family settling here — to locals and from-out-of-town history visitors. She added that recognizing the local trial and execution of John Brown with a town portrait or sculpture should also be considered, she said.
After proposing that highway billboards could promote Charles Town as the home of those unique American history stories, La Plante said.
“Nobody else has that,” she said.
La Plante joined three other West Virginia and national representatives from Main Street America, a subsidiary of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, to present impressions of the downtown gathered earlier from 297 city and area residents.
After touring the city earlier in the week, those Main Street representatives also offered both sky-high and ground-level recommendations about what could — and possibly shouldn’t — be done to boost the downtown’s commerce and community buzz.
They also listened to ideas and insights from citizens during the forum at Charles Washington Hall.
“It starts with the community vision, which is why we did that survey,” La Plante said about the city’s renewed downtown revitalization process.
“We really look at what is the vision and what is the market,” added Todd Barman, a Main Street America consultant for historic commercial districts. “You want to go after [consumer demographic] segments that are growing because you’re making an investment toward the future.”
As part of the process, city residents were surveyed. They pointed out the challenges and the opportunities for downtown.
“Historic,” “quaint,” “homeless,” “boring,” “empty,” “old” and “potential” were among the words they used to describe the downtown. Homelessness, a lack of variety of retail shops, vacant or rundown buildings, uncertain parking and inconsistent store hours were among the challenges.
“You also found out that a lot of people don’t know what you have down here [in the downtown], so you have to work on that a little bit as well,” La Plante said.
While efforts are made to think ahead, progress is currently being made.
A Christmas craft marketplace, promotional “pub crawls” and the completed restoration of the Charles Washington Hall community building last year were highlighted as recent successes for downtown, La Plante said. Residents and merchants are generally satisfied with the current schedule of downtown community events, ranging from block parties organized by Charles Town Now to the West Virginia Fest summer celebration, she said.
The city’s matching grants to help not only residential but also commercial property owners improve facades and sidewalks are also considered important.
“These are all valuable tools for a community to use when revitalizing their downtowns,” La Plante said.
Local commerce was a major focus of the discussion to revitalize the downtown.
About 2,900 people are employed in Charles Town, but about 2,400 people live in Charles Town but commute to work elsewhere, La Plante said. The resident survey showed that most people do their shopping after 5 p.m. after work, including those who return to the county after long commutes.
“Saturday is always the biggest day and it seems like all the other days are fairly equal there,” she said. “Clothing and arts and crafts are at the top of your list for what you would like to see open in the downtown.”
Barman sketched out a profile of three lifestyles, priorities and shopping patterns of typical households within a 20-minute driving radius. He said family-oriented households offer the biggest untapped spending potential within Jefferson County. He said families represent a big portion of the $50 million in potentially unfilled local spending demand for restaurants and dining.
“You want to go after [consumer demographic] segments that are growing because you’re making an investment toward the future,” he said.
Many families would likely patronize establishments that accommodate children and adults, he said. Such entertainment might include a bar for adults and a separate indoor or outdoor area offering bocce, corn hole or arcade games.
“What we heard in one of the [focus group] sessions is that people like to multitask,” said Michael Gioulis, a West Virginia representative for Main Street America. “They like to take care of their children, while at the same time having dinner while at the same time visiting with three or four of their friends.”
Charles Town could also benefit by creating a town square on one of the city’s side streets, Gioulis said. The permanent gathering space could be used for lunchtime concerts, outdoor movies and pie-eating contests during festivals.
“What it will also do will be to revitalize and energize businesses that are along that strip,” he said.
Placing a town square along Charles Street might also foster an opportunity for a dynamic use of the old police station nearby at West Liberty Street, he said.
Prominent city gateway markers placed at the main entrances to the city downtown — possibly at each end of Washington and George streets — could help define and promote the distinctive character of the downtown, Gioulis said.
Housing and parking
Research indicates that about 230 people currently live downtown, and about one-third of the people surveyed said they would consider living there, La Plante said. However, most downtown apartments are occupied, but, she pointed out, more apartments can be created above ground-floor shops and offices.
“Housing is a really important component for healthy downtown,” she explained. “People who live in a downtown spend more of their disposable income in the downtown.”
A significant and persistent issue — at least a perceived one — is a shortage of parking, Gioulis said.
Downtown Charles Town has nearly 1,000 parking spaces, but insufficient signage directing motorists to parking spaces off Washington Street is probably causing the uncertainty, he said.
Peak demand times for parking downtown are 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., but less than 70 percent of the available parking spaces are used during those periods, Gioulis said.
The issue is particularly important to address for new visitors to the city, Giovlis said. The city conducted a downtown parking study in 2011, but he said another study should probably be done.