In just a couple of months, much of historic downtown Lynchburg will become a rolling construction site as the city and Appalachian Power Co. embark on a long-planned overhaul of the utilities infrastructure. Downtown business owners, quite understandably, are worried about the impact the construction will have on their bottom lines, and we share their concerns.
The work will involve ripping up and replacing water and sewer lines, some of which are more than a century old. Indeed, in past utility work near downtown, workers have found wooden and clay water lines dating to the earliest days of the city’s utility system. APCo will be working in tandem with the city’s construction company, overhauling and upgrading the electrical grid downtown, another needed and overdue project. Already this year, APCo crews have been working to replace electrical vaults on the side streets between Church, Main and Commerce streets in advance of the main project to come; some of those vaults dated back to the 1920s and 1930s.
From September until just before Thanksgiving in November 2021, downtown will be a mess — there’s just no nice way to put it.
Anyone who lives or works downtown knows how much both of these projects are needed. Just ask business owners about water line breaks or opening up on a Monday morning to find water backed up in the basement of your building. Or ask APCo officials about the limitations the outdated electrical infrastructure places on their trying to meet increasing power needs for present and future customers downtown, not to mention the danger to their crews working with decades-old power lines.
While all this infrastructure work is going on, the city will also be redoing sidewalks, creating green spaces, installing new landscaping and creating a more pedestrian-friendly downtown. The end result will be spectacular, laying the groundwork for a boom in downtown that will make the past 15 years of revitalization pale in comparison. Honestly, we can’t wait to see the downtown that will emerge from the construction dust.
But between now and then, business owners are going to face some steep challenges, if past utility construction projects in the downtown region are any guide. Specifically, we’re talking about the multi-stage utility upgrades and streetscaping projects on Fifth Street and the two-year-long replacement of the Main Street bridge over the Expressway at the James River. While those projects were underway, it was tough for businesses to keep their heads above water. Just ask the owners of Accent Flags & Gifts, whose access to downtown was severed while the Main Street bridge was demolished and replaced, or the owner of the former Colortyme rentals, which opened in the old Adams Motor Co. building on Fifth Street to great fanfare only to close later because customers simply couldn’t get to the business.
Downtown business owners look to those past examples and shudder to think of what the next two years could look like.
That’s where the Downtown Lynchburg Association comes into the picture. Long known as Lynch’s Landing, the organization rebranded in early 2017, becoming almost a mini-chamber of commerce for downtown alone. Last month, the DLA held public meeting for downtown business owners — Surviving Construction 101 — to prepare for the upcoming disruption.
Among the proposals for business owners were securing lines of credit for any unexpected costs during construction, identifying alternative entry points for their staff and customers and using social media and other digital tools to reach out to current and future customers.
The downtown association also has a large role to play. It will be working on coordinated advertising campaigns to encourage locals to come downtown and patronize the businesses, in addition to partnering with local media outlets to provide reduced advertising rates. But with the scale of the disruption and the number of businesses that will be adversely affected over the next 26 months, it is quite possible the DLA — and the city — will have to take a much more active role to keep businesses above water.
We believe the city and the DLA should seriously consider any number of proactive, aggressive steps now, before any work begins, to keep the downtown business community healthy. We’re talking about grants, no-interest loans, high-energy advertising campaigns — paid for by the DLA and the city — across legacy and digital media platforms promoting not just downtown as a concept but specific businesses on a rotating basis.
The Fifth Street project was an early learning experience for the city; the Main Street bridge replacement began before the downtown association was formed. We need to learn from those experiences — and their shortcomings — and put those lessons to use during the upcoming downtown construction period.