The Roanoker - July/August 2017 - 13
STREETS OF ROANOKE
horses, and every living thing joined in the stampede," reported
a correspondent for the Virginian newspaper.
In more recent times, Main Street was the scene of a gun battle
between police and a man-and-wife team of bank robbers that held
up the Farmers National Bank on May 19, 1970. The 58-year-old
man and 70-year-old woman were both wounded and the $1,600
in stolen bills quickly recovered.
Main Street plays a prominent role in the civic life of Salem. Olde
Salem Days attracts thousands of visitors and vendors on the second Saturday of September. Artists, crafters, musicians, an antique
car show, food court and children's activities in Library Square mix
with the existing offerings along Main Street to provide one of the
Roanoke Valley's premier family events. Co-sponsored by the City
of Salem, Olde Salem Days is a fund-raising event for the Salem
Rotary Club. In 2016, the club was able to return $50,000 to the
community in grants to local charitable organizations from the
monies raised that year.
Beyond street festivals, Main Street downtown communicates the
character of Salem. This critical element has made Main Street and
the broader area considered by Salem as downtown to become the
focus of intense interest and future planning. In the fall of 2014,
city leaders, both elected and appointed, launched a formal design
process to renew Main Street downtown. In January 2015, city officials hosted a public open house to present preliminary concepts and
receive feedback. Over 100 citizens attended. Simultaneous to the
open house, Salem launched a website dedicated to the redesign initiative, mailed out a downtown retail survey (1,152 responded), and
released a schedule of follow-up meetings to engage stakeholders.
After several months, a steering committee narrowed the input
into broad themes for improving downtown. Among the more
specific recommendations were luring a hotel downtown, developing a night life attractive to younger adults, outdoor dining,
Main Street façade grants, crafting a more historic look for Main
Street (brick sidewalks, vintage signage and street lamps), enhancing green space and tree canopies, linking to the valley's greenway
system, encouraging downtown living and improving parking and
accessibility. In short, Salem's downtown needed its own "look"
according to participants; a defined sense of place and community.
Since the launch of the downtown plan, much has happened.
The 1928-era West Body Shop on Main Street has been acquired
by local developer Ed Walker and his partners with the goal of
converting the structure into retail and residential use that would
represent a $2 million investment. The City of Salem has also
awarded its first façade grants to businesses fronting Main Street
to create a more improved, historic feel.
COURTESY SALEM MUSEUM
The 1910 former courthouse is now owned by Roanoke College.
The plan has not come without controversy. Talk of possibly
relocating the farmers market has created a stir, and some feel city
leaders may move too fast in embracing changes that might not
prove beneficial or cost effective.
The renewed focus on downtown and Main Street specifically was
the result of vacant storefronts and empty buildings that spiked in
the late 2000s. Long-time retailers either closed or relocated, and
Main Street began to have a sense of abandonment.
Frustrating to Salem officials, reasons for the departures were
often beyond their control, such as high rents. While the Roanoke
Valley has vibrant commercial villages with unique identities and
night life (Grandin Road, Roanoke City Market, Daleville Town
Center), downtown-plan participants noted that Salem does not;
yet elements are present for such to exist. Main Street is within a
few blocks of the Roanoke College campus with over 1,000 residential students. There is green space-Longwood Park, Younger
Park, and Lake Spring Park-and other public amenities such as
the farmers market and library.
The vision is that these and other existing assets can be leveraged
to create more festivals and special events, a "downtown brand,"
residential living, and a more eclectic mix of retail, restaurants,
and small businesses.
The Downtown Plan, adopted by Salem City Council last year,
describes Main Street and the area it anchors as "the heart of Salem"
and its renewal and development as critical to the city's future identity. Thus, the hope is that Main Street will continue to function
in much the same way it did a century ago.
JULY/AUGUST 2017 | 13