BY LORI MCKINNEY & THE PRINCETON HUBCAP TEAM
Programs with The Hub are always rewarding, productive and inspiring. My journey with strategic community development began with the Blueprint Communities program in 2013 with an excellent team of people from my hometown of Princeton, WV. I’m grateful for the tools, resources and process that created the foundation for the transformation we’re experiencing now in our town. The latest program we’ve had the opportunity to participate in was HubCAP; this program provided excellent coaching and peer learning; it focused our vision and took us through the next chapter of our development. During the course of the program, we revisited our original plan and created a new performance agenda for the next several years, and upon reflection, we realized we have accomplished a good deal of what we set out to do!
We kicked off our HubCAP journey with our “Community Conversation and Celebration.” We celebrated all that has changed, all that is currently being developed, and what’s to come.
The amazing Robert, our resident tech mastermind, lit the Renaissance Theater in beautiful colors, which highlighted the unique beauty of its dynamic state of transformation. On stage, I gave a retrospective on the past decades of development in our downtown. We honored those who laid the groundwork in early decades, as well as those who have worked to make improvements over the years. Then, we launched our new branding initiative which we had been fortunate to embark upon through The Downtown Appalachia program.
With over 50 people in attendance and a very special feeling in the air, we played a video introducing the “Mercer Street Grassroots District, where Craft, Culture & Commerce come to Thrive.” Everyone applauded and there was a buzz of conversation; it was a true milestone moment. After the presentation, our coach Eric Pories led our community through a visioning process, gleaning insight into what everyone hoped to see happen next. Eric introduced the community to our HubCAP team and let them know we’d be taking their insight with us as we embarked upon the HubCAP planning process, and we promised we’d return with a plan that embodied that vision. The amazing artist Christopher Clark captured the conversation in an illustrative graphic. About 20 Mercer Street merchants attended and introduced themselves to the audience. It was a very special night.
In our plan, we identified the need for signage to direct people from the Interstate into our downtown. We applied for and were awarded a Flex-E grant to develop a wayfinding signage plan, and that process went well. The research phase included a great deal of input and thought. The plan is now complete, and the signs are currently being fabricated by Mercer County Technical Education Center. The signs will help create a sense of place for visitors and residents.
Our plan also identified the need for a cohesive design plan for the aesthetic of our distrcit. We were thankful to use Technical Assistance funding from the HubCAP program to engage the same firm that had completed our branding and wayfinding plans to complete our streetscape plan. Through the process, we learned that we were using the word “streetscape” a bit willy-nilly. In the urban planning world, streetscape generally refers to a major transformation involving burying power lines, changing out sidewalks, etc. We learned that what we were looking for was more of a strategic beautification plan. With help from the firm, we have come up with a set of design guidelines that will steer our beautification efforts in an organized way moving forward.
Our next celebration was a “Community Conversation and Activation,” where we presented the plan to the community and gleaned their input. Then, we activated volunteers into areas they would like to contribute. It was a productive evening and many commented that they were impressed with the level of organization and structure. We’re so thankful to HubCAP for taking our big vision and providing direction for us to focus, organize and accomplish our goals.
We also identified in our plan the need for a more connected businesses community, and to address that, we launched a series of informal Merchants Gatherings. They have been great for establishing and cultivating relationships amongst businesses, and the sessions generated two new collaborative, downtown-wide events: First Fridays and Art Walk. We launched 1st Fridays in March, and now every month, merchants offer special deals, giveaways, creative activities, and more. We know that this year is establishing groundwork for a tradition that is going to last for years to come. The arts-centric merchants also launch a quarterly Art Walk to showcase and boost attendance and awareness for the galleries and local artists. It has been fabulously successful! In addition, there is a group of car lovers that organized and have been hosting Cool Cruisin’ Nights downtown since 2013, and we invited them to our last merchants gathering to explore together how the businesses can contribute to and benefit from these events. Cruise Nights are extremely popular and are seeing visitors from all over the region. We are all very excited to watch this tradition evolve, and the organizers gave us some great insight into ways we can cater to the crowd.
During this time, we launched a brand new website to showcase and promote the businesses and events in the neighborhood; www.grassrootsdistrict.com. It’s a great way for us to provide support to each entrepreneur and provide a one stop shopping portal of information on the happenings downtown. As more businesses plant roots and our neighborhood grows in its connectivity, new ideas are springing forth. We’re all inspired and excited to see how it grows!
For our next community celebration, we decided to honor the nostalgia and memories of elders in our community who remember the heyday of our downtown so fondly. We hosted “Memories on Mercer Street – an evening of storytelling and nostalgia” this past spring, and it was a very special occasion. Everyone was invited to share their favorite memory of this neighborhood, and we featured a few important holders of history on stage with vintage photographs on large screens. We heard from JoAnna Fredeking, who has lived her entire 80 year old life within a one mile radius of Mercer Street. She is an absolute treasure trove of stories! We enjoyed a delicious spread of food and drink provided by downtown businesses: Bucha Brewhouse & Bistro, Appalachian Coffee House and Coal Country Kandies & Cafe.
This summer, we intend to finish with a splash with an ice cream social, taking a note from several other communities who have hosted this sweet event. We’re excited to share a low-key, social experience with our community downtown to celebrate the progress we have all made together.
We’re so thankful to the HubCAP program for helping us refine and articulate our vision, craft a plan, and stay focused to carry the work forward. We are committed to this journey, and feel equipped to accomplish the next round of goals.