Downtown — the heart of small towns

I spent the weekend at RPM cycling instructor training, fortunately at my own gym. It was nice not to have to travel. But some other folks did, including one guy from Pennsylvania. He turned it into a longer trip and was asking us for recommendations for restaurants and things to do.

Another instructor’s first suggestion was to avoid the chains — take advantage of all the great local places we have to eat. Which we do, and which he’s planning on. All the places we recommended were downtown, though he was staying out by the highway. That’s because Staunton’s downtown is what separates it from other small towns. It’s revitalized in the past 15 years, and turned into the heart of the community in many ways.

Meanwhile, my mom had mentioned in an e-mail that she and my dad were spending part of the weekend at an event in my hometown’s downtown. Franklin’s downtown doesn’t have the attractions of Staunton’s — it’s tough to top the only replica of Shakespeare’s first playhouse and its associated performances — but during the past couple of years, the downtown merchants have tried to make it more of a destination.My college town was the only place I’ve lived that had a downtown that has been vital all along, and part of that was the proximity of the college and associated foot traffic.

If you look at what the National Trust for Historic Preservation is doing, downtowns everywhere are getting attention — from small towns in rural areas to bigger cities looking to reinvent themselves. As we moved away from local businesses toward chains and big box stores, downtowns started to fade and wither. Now, many communities are trying to bring them back. As somebody who lives and works in downtown, I like that I can live most of my life in this part of town and find almost everything I need within walking distance. And when I see new developments in Northern Virginia trying to mimic the nature of small towns and their downtowns, I have to smile.

Does your town have a vibrant downtown? And do you spend any time there?