OXFORD — Downtown Oxford had a crowd Friday evening, and that’s the whole point, say organizers and supporters of a program meant to revitalize the area.
After two days of meetings and interviews, members of a resource team from the Main Street program took to the stage of the city’s performing arts center to give a presentation of their recommendations.
A block party outside the center after the presentation marked the end of the team’s trip to Oxford, and the beginning of the city’s own local Main Street program, called Historic Oxford: A Mainstreet Community.
“We’ve had a great last three days of work,” said City Councilwoman Charlotte Hubbard, owner of a downtown restaurant. Hubbard was also appointed to the city’s Main Street program board.
Main Street Alabama is Alabama’s agency for the National Main Street Center,a nonprofit arm of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The mission of the program is to foster downtown revitalization efforts nationwide. Oxford’s selection as a Main Street Alabama city was announced June 2.
Mary Helmer, state coordinator for Alabama Main Street, said resource team members condensed 22 pages of notes from the numerous interviews and meetings with locals into one vision. That vision will be handed to the city’s program in a detailed plan in early September.
Jay Schlinsog, with Tennessee-based Downtown Professionals Network, oversaw the organizational aspect of the plan.
“Organization is absolutely essential to creating and sustaining a long term downtown revitalization effort,” Schlinsog said. Establishing a work plan, and reporting on progress, is critical to a successful Main Street program, he told attendees.
Kathy LaPlante, with the National Main Street Center, focused on promotion during her three days in Oxford.
Marketing and image-building, retail and business promotions and special events and festivals can all be used to increase the number of visitors downtown, LaPlante explained.
“The number one job of the promotion committee is to bring more people downtown,” LaPlante said.
There are already several events, such as Oxfordfest and the Christmas and homecoming parades, throughout the year in Oxford. LaPlante recommended that the city’s Main Street program become involved in those existing events, and also create promotional materials to be given out at those events.
LaPlante also recommended the program develop a marketing plan to address the planned sidewalk repairs in the downtown district to ensure business there can continue to operate through the construction.
Oxford’s former name, Lick Skillet, could be leveraged into a festival to promote the city’s history, LaPlante recommended, with skillet-weight-lifting, skillet soapbox derby or a cast iron triathlon or 5K.
“Nobody else has ever been called Lick Skillet,” LaPlante said. “It could get you national recognition.”
Casey Wood, director for Emporia Main Street in Kansas, worked on economic restructuring while in Oxford.
Wood said Oxford has a dynamic local economy, but there is room for growth. He recommended the local program support entrepreneurism, and support existing businesses.
“You have outstanding capacity here,” Wood said, referring to the approximately $1.7 billion spent shopping annually by area residents.
Randy Wilson, owner of Community Design Solutions in Columbia, SC. spoke about the design aspect of revitalizing downtown Oxford.
“This performing arts center is world-class,” Wilson said, and the downtown area has numerous historic buildings. Many of the buildings need work, however, Wilson said, and the area is not wholly accommodating to pedestrians.
Wilson recommended that Oxford’s Main Street program, not the City Council, draft a master plan for the physical changes downtown.
Oxford’s government has been successful at enticing new business in other areas, Wilson said, and similar incentives can be used to spur downtown property owners to invest in renovations to their buildings.
Helmer said Main Street Alabama staff will be returning to town often to help guide the city’s program through the first several years, but local organizers should stay energized throughout the process.
It’s up to the community to make the desired changes downtown, she said, and “I have no doubt you’ll get that done.”
The city plans to hire a director for Oxford’s program within the next several weeks, Hubbard said.
Sam Stinson, one of the owners of Stinson Howard Fine Jewelry on Main Street, expressed excitement over what he’d seen at Friday’s presentation. Stinson, whose family has owned businesses in downtown Oxford since 1962, said he has volunteered to help with the city’s Main Street program.
“It’s going to take a lot of people, and a lot of work,” Stinson said. “This is the first step of many.”