River District Association

2023 Great American Main Street Award Winner

River District Association in Danville, Virginia, is one of three winners of the prestigious 2023 Great American Main Street Award (GAMSA), which recognizes communities for their excellence in comprehensive preservation-based commercial district revitalization. Sponsored by The Hartford and selected by a national jury of community preservation professionals and leaders in the fields of economic development, River District Association is being recognized for creating a fertile environment for economic vitality through exceptionally strong collaborative leadership and partnerships.

Main Street America Program: River District Association
Coordinating Program: Virginia Main Street
Year Organization Founded: 1999
Population: 42,215
Public and Private Reinvestment: $362 million*
Net New Businesses: 150*
Buildings/Structures Rehabilitated: 3.58 million square feet*

*Since Main Street America program began

“River District Association demonstrates that a strong organizational foundation based on an ethos of collaboration and strategy leads to transformative change,” said Main Street America Interim President and CEO, Hannah White. “Their tireless efforts to build meaningful relationships with local stakeholders to inform and realize a holistic economic development approach has created an entrepreneurial ecosystem for the downtown and its surrounding region.” 

Left: Ariel view of Bridge Street in Danville's Tobacco Warehouse District. Credit: Mark Aron for River City TV. Right: Danville's Main Street Plaza in autumn. Credit: Von Wellington.

Danville’s downtown is well known for its rich manufacturing heritage, which built large brick facilities along the town’s eponymous waterway. As these industries shrank during the 1980s-2000s, the downtown suffered economically. Today, the downtown is not only rebounding, but thriving as an attractive place for residents and visitors to remember the area’s history while contributing to a vibrant future for all.

Left: Two women enjoy an outing with Danville's public bikes through the HOME sign pocket park on Main Street in the River District. Credit: Laura Ashworth. Right: Attendees eagerly wait for popcorn at the Christmas on the Plaza event in the River District. Credit: Mark Aron for River City TV.

Revitalization work led by RDA began in 1999 with a mission to coordinate efforts with the city agencies. While these early efforts resulted in some progress, meaningful change was hampered by the continued decline of the town’s mill industry. Strategically designed action plans in 2011 and 2017—which included the allocation of public dollars into the downtown and retooled RDA’s organizational structure based on the principles of the Main Street Approach—supported sustainable economic initiatives, multifunctional promotional activities, and property development.

The results: Danville’s vision of a vibrant downtown is coming to fruition. Since 2010, the River District has leveraged $52 million in public investment to attract $310 million in private investment to facilitate the creation of more than 150 businesses and the addition of over 1,200 residential spaces.

Danville leaders and partners break grown on Dan River Falls, the $85 million redevelopment project of the former Dan River Fabrics White Mill. Credit: Mark Aron for River City TV.

“This is a tremendous honor for our community, and very important for our local residents who have been through so much economic turmoil over the decades,” said Diana Schwartz, CEO at River District Association. “This recognition will continue to drive home the understanding that Danville truly is a city once again on the rise. It is because of the resilience of the people in our community that Danville is a great place for those that choose to live, work, play, pray, and invest in.”

RDA credits a creative and entrepreneurial mindset, as well as intentional efforts to increase the strength, collaboration, trustworthiness, and reputation of the organization as their keys to success. Notable accomplishments include investing in the professional development of board members, establishing rock-solid relationships with stakeholders, and implementing thoughtfully constructed, yet ambitious strategic plans.

Dream Launch 2022 cohort participants receive seed funding to support their entrepreneurial ventures. Credit: River District Association.

Their Dream Launch series is credited as its most impactful programming. Consisting of four distinct, yet integrated programs, the program equips budding entrepreneurs and established businesses with education and financial tools. Since 2018, the program’s business bootcamp series has provided free start-up training to over 465 participants (200 of which completed all 6 Dream Launch Bootcamp Classes) and has distributed $375,000 in grants.

River District small business owners include Roslyn Preston, co-owner of The Vintage Boutique (left) and Sam Rippe, 4th generation owner of Rippe’s Apparel, Furs, Shoes, Lifestyle (right). Credit: River District Association.

The organization’s Vote Your Main Street campaign resulted in securing a $150,000 preservation award that provided funds for the renovation of a historic property, an increase sense of community pride, and organizational sustainability for RDA as a part owner in the building. Their façade improvement program has provided nearly 40 property owners and tenants with grants, in-kind professional services, and technical assistance. From fresh coats of paint to new signs, these improvements are inspiring a positive multiplying effect on the community’s sense of pride and physical appearance.

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