Open Forum: A gem — and a survivor

Posted: May 20, 2013

“Downtown” is not just a word; it is a feeling. That is why the rededication of the Loudoun Street Mall is an occasion for celebration. For those of who have been through the changes — the ups and downs — over many decades, it is also a time for reflection.

Loudoun Street was once the hub of business in Winchester, with nearly all the major stores located there. I remember a downtown with movie theaters, Solenberger’s Hardware, Miller’s Drugstore, and major retailers like Sears and J.C. Penney.

Not many of them remain. But it is a comfort to walk downtown and see some old familiar friends — Bell’s, Patton’s, Wilkins’ Shoe Center and, of course, the Snow White Grill.

Winchester has gone through the same thing most older American cities have. As strip malls and shopping centers became the new model, most of our businesses followed them. If the main street of a city is where most of the commerce is, then Pleasant Valley Road slowly replaced Loudoun Street.

In many cities, the old town has been left to wither on the vine, but not in Winchester. We decided to try something new. At the time, it was considered quite daring.

Can it really have been nearly 40 years since we replaced our main street with a “walking mall”?

Over its lifetime, the Loudoun Street Mall has seen many changes. As many of the anchors closed or moved to other areas, a new entrepreneurial spirit took root. New businesses moved in, joining their old neighbors. It was never easy, but through a combination of tradition and innovation, our downtown has survived.

Our success has many partners.

We have so many civic-minded residents who have contributed to our community in countless ways. I think of people like Jim Vickers of OakCrest and Wilbur Feltner at the old F&M Bank, who made major investments to preserve and restore some of our old buildings. Shenandoah University also has become a strong presence downtown. The Old Town Development Board continues to play a vital role in support of our efforts.

Our planning and economic development staffs have worked on this for many years. Those efforts continue with projects such as the renovation and reuse of the Taylor Hotel. As mayor and a member of council for more than 30 years, I am proud of the investment our city has made in the ongoing revitalization of our downtown.

And let us also thank the contractors and workers who labored through a winter (and cold spring) to bring this project to completion, on time and on budget. This is how it is supposed to work, and it is very exciting to see the fruit of all our labor.

Downtown Winchester — our Loudoun Street Mall — is a gem. The challenge has always been to fight the tarnish that the passing years can bring. Together, we have polished this gem — and it sparkles.

Let us celebrate this achievement, with gratitude for the blessing of living in such a wonderful community.

Elizabeth A. Minor is mayor of the City of Winchester.