By Leslie Yevak
The vacant, locked SunTrust Bank building in the heart of Lexington confronts visitors and locals alike as they make their way down Main Street.
The building, shuttered last year, is among the most noticeable of the nearly 20 vacant storefronts downtown. And what comes next for the city’s historic central business district is unclear.
Old heating, electrical and lighting systems, and the lack of display windows, mean the SunTrust building is apt to stay empty, said Matt Paxton, treasurer of the Main Street Lexington program.
“Because it’s an old building. It’s not really conducive to retail,” Paxton said.
But owners of other empty buildings face a different set of challenges.
Washington and Lee University’s School of Law is seeing its enrollment drop from more than 400 a few years ago to about 300 next fall, university officials say. And the university is breaking ground this month on new undergraduate housing that will take about 300 additional students out of the local rental housing market by 2017.
The combination of fewer renters of housing and empty retail space is a challenge city officials and Main Street Lexington are trying to meet.
Walkable amenities such as a pharmacy and a full-service grocery store would attract both renters and revenue to downtown Lexington, Stephanie Wilkinson, Main Street Lexington’s executive director, said in an email. But those businesses cannot thrive downtown without downtown renters, Wilkinson said.
Main Street Lexington, affiliated with the Virginia Main Street Program, is a volunteer-based organization whose goal is downtown revitalization and historic preservation.
Paxton said the city needs more retail shops that will attract students to downtown.
Washington and Lee student Allison Smith agreed. Smith said a better selection of clothing stores would draw her downtown more often.
“I think it would increase foot traffic because people would have a reason to go,” Smith said. “Right now there’s not really a reason to be downtown all that much.”
In a recent survey conducted by Main Street Lexington, students also asked for a live music venue.
“I think a lot of people would go and would spend their money there,” said Smith, “as opposed to going to Charlottesville for the day because there’s nothing to do [in Lexington].”
A music venue would bring more energy and excitement to the city, Paxton agreed. But the city’s 18th-century look would have to be respected, he said.
“It’s got to be vibrant, but within the context of the historic nature,” he said.
There is another challenge as well. Virginia law requires venues selling alcohol to sell equal amounts of food. Still, Paxton said, Main Street Lexington remains interested in the idea of a music venue.
“One of the things we want to do,” said Paxton, “is to promote more interaction between the colleges and the downtown.”
Main Street Lexington plans to use information from a recent survey to create a public database of Lexington’s downtown vacant properties, shopping demographics and retail sales. Wilkinson said it is important to offer such data to prospective entrepreneurs who are considering opening businesses downtown.
Vacant retail storefronts downtown also mean less revenue for the city of Lexington, which makes money from sales, meals and lodging taxes. But the opening of three hotels and a couple of new restaurants last year has city officials encouraged.
City Council Member Chuck Smith said the sales and hotel taxes are bringing in money for the city.
“Those are really ahead of projected revenue,” Smith said. “[They’re] a pretty reliable indicator of how well the downtown economy is doing.”
Wilkinson said Main Street Lexington is working with the Chamber of Commerce and its new Rockbridge 2020 Initiative. The project has gotten local government funding to promote Lexington, Buena Vista and Rockbridge County as ideal locations for starting a business.
Meanwhile, the vacancies remain. Paxton said competition is still evident in the existing downtown market, and he hopes that filling those vacancies will generate even more competition.
“Competition is always good,” said Paxton. “Competition makes you sharper.”