By Jennifer Bell, Downtown Manager, City of Winchester | From Main Street Story of the Week | July 29, 2016 |
In Winchester, Virginia, one woman’s vision and commitment to downtown’s revitalization created an innovative community space for the Creative Class. The Bright Center
, 38,000 square-feet of creative mixed-use development completely funded by private investment, houses offices for 20 businesses and organizations, the Bright Buzz for entrepreneurs, and the Bright Box for entertainment. It is the kind of project Main Street directors want in their downtown: a creative reuse of an old building into a contributing mixed-use development fostering entrepreneurs and an entertainment venue drawing hundreds of people downtown weekly. It stands as a bright example for others to follow.
, has been welcoming people with warm hospitality for over 250 years, serving as the cultural and business hub of the region. Winchester is a city famous for the 90-year-old Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival, home of Patsy Cline, Admiral Byrd and Daniel Morgan, and as the city which changed hands over 70 times during the Civil War due to its strategic location. Old Town Winchester has seen the ups and downs of a typical Main Street Community. Once the bustling heart of the city, it became a victim of suburban sprawl. Town leaders in the 1970s changed the main street into a pedestrian mall in an attempt to stop the loss and compete with the new shopping malls. While this slowed the loss of businesses to suburban locations, eventually Winchester’s historic downtown saw a decline in customers and an alarming increase in vacancy. Throughout this change, Winchester remained committed to preserving the historic downtown and the character of the community. This dedication to preservation is why the historic district includes beautiful buildings from the late 1700s, 1800s and 1900s, offering a charming authenticity for how the Old Town began and evolved as a commercial hub for the Northern Shenandoah Valley over the last two and half centuries.
In the middle of the charming historic downtown stands the Bright Center, as the name suggest, a brightly colored innovation created from an old Leggetts Department Store, comprised of three conjoined historic buildings. The brilliantly colored Bright Center, created in 2005 by Marilyn Finnemore, stands in great contrast to more traditional neighboring buildings, including the 1840s Old Courthouse building across the street, yet fits in perfectly both in concept and design. From the minute you see the burst of color, you know something exciting is going on there and you are drawn in to find out more.
Marilyn Finnemore and husband Aldo Bello began the Bright Center as individuals interested in city revitalization. Neither is a native of Winchester, neither maintains an official residence in Winchester, but both passionately love Winchester and the way they feel when they commute here on the weekends from their home in the Washington, D.C. metro area. When Marilyn first visited Winchester, she said it reminded her of her home in Western New York. However, Winchester possessed all the advantages needed to be successful: charming architecture, a sense of place, a strong community fabric, proximity to major highways and outdoor recreation, and a walkable downtown. She resolved to build the Bright Center as her legacy to smart city planning and purchased the three-building complex, which at that time was vacant except for one small retail shop. She wanted to “make it sustainable, have a heck of a good time and do something good for the community.” From her vision came:
The Bright Center
The Bright Center houses an assortment of office space ranging in size and type. Within this one center you can visit a doctor, attend an exercise class, shop for Himalayan handicrafts and have your website redesigned. The three internally-connected buildings house technology companies as well as an office for the local Small Business Development Center. Occupants range in size from one employee to over a dozen with an emphasis on nurturing Creative Class tenants, which Marilyn sees as the future for Old Town Winchester. Marilyn was determined to “build a community of creatives, where everyone knows each other, and to build the kind of space she would want to work.” The Bright Center has served to incubate new businesses. Three of the businesses housed in the Bright Center later expanded and opened new retail locations in vacant downtown buildings.
Bright Buzz for Entrepreneurs
The newest addition to the Bright Center, Bright Buzz, is a co-working space with the goal of nurturing social entrepreneurs. It houses an arts business, the Winchester Art Market, which provides changing art exhibits by local artists and works to host informative “TED” talks for the occupants. Where most property owners advertise for specific types of tenants, the Bright Buzz takes this to a whole new level of specificity advertising for tenants with a “desire to learn, share and collaborate” who are “interested in being part of a thriving downtown community” with a “belief that individuals and businesses can make a difference.”
Bright Box, Entertainment Venue
The Bright Box, the most well-known component of the Bright Center, is a modern performance space which holds over 200 people for concerts, comedy shows, weddings and other events. Like so many aspects of the Bright Center, it is well thought out and organized. It houses not only a performance space but also dressing rooms, a green room and sound proof rehearsal areas for performers. The Bright Box hosts over 15 events a month and offers a bistro menu, craft and domestic beers as well as wines and local craft spirits. It provides a range of sophisticated performances by nationally recognizable acts to performances by professional musicians from Shenandoah University and local talent competitions. Marilyn likes to refer the Bright Box as her gift to the community. She recognized the need for a downtown year-round entertainment venue and developed it within the Bright Center in 2013. In 2015, she received the award Entrepreneur of the Year from the Chamber of Commerce for the Bright Center/Bright Box.
Recently, a new smaller venue was created in an area which doubles as a cocktail area during performances. The new venue, called Outside the Box, can be reached by climbing Winchester’s only escalator, carefully preserved as a staircase during the renovation of the building. (Current building codes did not allow for the escalator to be returned to its original use, but it remains a charming symbol of the past and an example of the careful preservation of Winchester’s history within the Bright Center.)
Winchester Main Street
In 2008, Marilyn joined the Winchester Main Street Board, referred to as the Old Town Development Board, to take part in broader community revitalization efforts. The first stages of the Bright Center had just been completed, she had moved businesses into the space, but the entertainment venue, the Bright Box, was still years away. Marilyn wanted to continue her revitalization efforts through service on the Main Street Board and further influence the direction of the downtown. She felt the Main Street board was the way to build up the creative class, restore the downtown’s vibrancy, emphasize walkability, and encourage great restaurants. A few years later, the Winchester City Council identified revitalization of Old Town Winchester as a top Strategic Priority and invested $7.1 million in an infrastructure update. The Loudoun Street Mall renovation was completed in May 2013. When many towns were removing the last vestiges of pedestrian malls, Winchester’s City Council chose to update and invest. The Old Town Development Board encouraged the addition of design elements to make the Loudoun Street Mall the community gathering place.
Left: Marilyn Finnemore accepts her Outstanding Entrepreneur of the Year award. Rght: The original Pedestrian Mall was completed in 1974 an underwent a complete renovation in 2013.
With the support of the Old Town Development Board, City Council also entered into a contract in 2012 with a Special Events Promoter to begin a series of nine new major events and develop a new brand for the downtown. Marilyn played a key role in the rebranding and has remained a stalwart champion for the downtown. These changes have led to a dramatic transformation within Old Town Winchester which has spurred more private investment, many new businesses opening and increased tax revenue. in fact, meals tax data shows $4 million more was spent in downtown restaurants in Winchester in 2015 compared to 2012.
Did the Bright Center light the way for these changes? It is hard to prove it definitively, but vision is contagious and we expect a bright future for Old Town Winchester’s Bright Center.
Jennifer Bell serves as the Downtown Manager for the City of Winchester and Director of Winchester’s Main Street Board, the Old Town Development Board. Prior to this she was the Executive Director of Salem Main Streets in Salem, Massachusetts where she won a Community Service award for starting a successful farmers market. http://oldtownwinchesterva.com/