Revitalizing downtown Franklin

Published 11:56 am Saturday, August 2, 2014

On Monday, when I learned that Western Tidewater’s longtime restaurateur Liz Britt — she of The Teddy Bear, Station One, the dining room at Cypress Cove County Club and, most recently, Simply Divine — was laying down her apron as she put it, my immediate thought was how much I was going to miss her Reuben sandwich with a side of homemade potato salad.

My second thought was what the closing of her restaurant on the corner of Main Street and First Avenue says about the state of Downtown Franklin.

Franklin’s downtown business district has been in a general state of decline for several years, a fact that doesn’t require my going to great lengths to convince anyone of at this point. The reasons for its demise are well documented — and not at all unique to Franklin — as many communities have struggled to maintain what were once thriving hubs of commerce and culture.

But outside influences, such as a flood or the loss or significant downsizing of a major economic engine, can’t be viewed as excuses to let downtown go. Like any living, breathing thing, cities large and small have a heartbeat. And a city’s heart is its downtown.

So I’ve spent a lot of time this week really thinking about downtown Franklin, and I’d like to share a few thoughts on ways I think the city can focus its efforts on revitalizing what can once again be the thriving centerpiece of life in Western Tidewater.

Taxes. The City of Franklin collects a special tax from downtown property owners above and beyond what is charged citywide. The additional 24 cents per $100 of assessed value collected, which is 25 percent more than what other city property owners pay, goes directly to pay for the expenses incurred by the Downtown Franklin Association. This special tax generates roughly $50,000 per year in revenue to the city, which is funneled directly back to the DFA in a section of the city’s budget called Downtown Development.

With all due respect to the hardworking team at DFA, the events they sponsor, such as the We Be Jammin’ summer concert series and the Franklin fall Festival, don’t do a lot to actually develop downtown. Most of these events take place when downtown businesses are closed and do little to spur economic growth.

The city should consider one of two things with respect to the downtown tax; eliminate it entirely to make investing in downtown more financially attractive, or use it to fund additional resources for Franklin-Southampton Economic Development Inc. to have a full-time director of downtown development. DFA does a great job of promoting existing downtown businesses but is not a vehicle for attracting new ones, which is precisely what downtown needs.

Housing. Ask anyone who has recently looked for a decent and affordable apartment to rent in Franklin, and they will tell you that costs are high and options are few. Most cities that have successfully revitalized their downtown districts have done so, in part, because they made changes in zoning and comprehensive planning that allowed for people to move downtown.

One needs to look no further than Richmond, Petersburg and Norfolk for outstanding examples of such changes. Want to find a way to attract young professionals to live and spend money in our downtown district? Allow them to live within walking distance to their offices and favorite hangouts. There are plenty of property owners on Main Street in Franklin who would love to turn the second floor of their buildings into modern living units for renters. It’s worked well in other places, and there’s no reason it can’t work in Franklin.

Give ‘em a reason to come. One of the most famous movie quotes of all time is, “If you build it, he will come.” Of course, that line comes from the movie “Field of Dreams,” in which Kevin Costner’s character builds a ballfield in the middle of his farm and thousands wind up making a pilgrimage to visit his work. Every weekend, hundreds of children in Western Tidewater leave town to go play ball somewhere else, taking their parents and, more importantly, their parents’ money with them.

Why not reverse the trend? A ball field complex near Barrett’s Landing would be the ideal place to host baseball and softball tournaments, and the land is there to build one. Keeping local dollars local while drawing additional dollars from out of town is the name of the game. Speaking of Barrett’s Landing and, more specifically, the river on which it sits, the Blackwater River is probably Franklin’s greatest, and most underutilized, natural asset.

The city owns a 50-acre tract along the river behind the parking area at Barrett’s Landing that it acquired after the flood in 1999. Primarily a wetland area, the Pinpoint property as it is called would be ideal for the development of walking and nature trails that would be hugely popular with environmental tourists who are well known for their willingness to travel.

A downtown river is an incredible advantage, and one that the city should find every means of capitalizing on. We should heed the words of Shoeless Joe. If we build it, they will indeed come.

TONY CLARK is the publisher of The Tidewater News. He can be contacted at either 562-3187 or