Those are the words used to describe downtown Parkersburg's desired future by both City Development Director Ann Conageski and Keith Burdette, President of the Wood County Development Authority. As Cecil Childress, Manager of the Blennerhassett Hotel, added during our group's lunch time discussion "downtown will never be like it used to be." Keith agreed, noting that "the challenge is how our downtown reinvents itself."
[photo, from left to right: Steven Nicely, Eric Gumm, Cecil Childress, and Keith Burdette]
Our conversation reflected their hard-nosed attitude, grounded on both the demise of the area's manufacturing base -- Parkersburg's population plummeted during the 1980s and 90s from about 50,000 to 33,000 -- and what they consider the realities of the marketplace.
The point was hammered home to me earlier in the day when I breakfasted with Mayor Robert Newell. The Mayor, a former police chief, ticked off for me the names of some of the many companies that closed down (or moved out) since he was in high school. "These jobs are not coming back," he bluntly stated.
In fact, the morning paper reported on more job losses -- in Belpre, just across the Ohio River from Parkersburg.
What the group I met with see as the future of a healthy downtown Parkersburg is an employment hub centered on a core of large government agencies and private white-collar firms. But key to enhancing this is the need for appropriate amenities, from theaters to restaurants.
Parkersburg has a big head start when it comes to being a government headquarters. Renowned Senator Robert Byrd steered the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Bureau of Public Debt to Parkersburg a while back. And through recent consolidations it has expanded to a total of nearly 2,000 employees downtown: witness its new facility near the other downtown government offices.
Also downtown are the County Courthouse and Judicial Complex; a Federal Court building; City Offices; and other government services. So a true government hub is already a reality.
below left: the historic Wood County Courthouse; below right: the new U.S. Bureau of Public Debt Dept. Bldg.
An important addition is Blue Cross/Blue Shield of West Virginia. In fact, it is expanding its downtown Parkersburg headquarters from 600 to about 750 employees. A new building will be built on the corner of Market & 7th Street, the vacant lot visible in this photo.
Also important is bringing more housing to downtown. There's already the beautiful, historic Julia-Ann Square residential neighborhood next to downtown. And, as Eric Gumm, Chair of the Municipal Planning Committee, told me, there are plans to convert the old Blue Cross building into condos, and a new downtown planned neighborhood development, Avery Court, is in the works.
As Steve Nicely of the Visitors & Convention Bureau explained, "traditional retailing has no future in downtown Parkersburg, what's important is specialty retail." In our conversation, no concern was raised about the typical big box retailers locating away from the downtown core. In fact, that was viewed as a positive, strengthening the region as a whole and affording convenient shopping opportunities. Big box retail is not competing with downtown, and, in fact, is not even wanted downtown.
Instead, just as the beautifully restored, locally owned (by Sam Ross) "boutique style" Blennerhassett Hotel (with its 89 rooms) already serves as the "poster child" for downtown Parkersburg's new image, the goal is to build on this by creating a hub for arts and entertainment attractions, with good restaurants, to draw people. There's already the Smoot and the Actors Theaters.
Keith Burdette explained the importance of having an attractive "24/7" downtown in recruiting firms to locate in Parkersburg. Young professionals want to be in a vibrant area -- and the vitality of downtown is a key indicator of this.
Another key amenity, not yet fully capitalized on, is the Ohio riverfront. Development Director Ann Conageski (right in photo) and Planning Director Donna Davis (left) took me there, and described plans -- awaiting funding -- for a long walkway and park facilities along the river.
So while calling for downtown to be a "business park with amenities" might sound crass to some, to a bunch of West Virginians with a heartfelt love for their city, it just makes good, realistic, economic sense.