A former Gold Rush outpost reinvigorates its downtown, and revives itsfortunes
GRASS VALLEY, CALIF.
By 6 p.m. all the cars are gone from Mill Street. Out come boxes of fresh peaches, apricots, strawberries, string beans, and tomatoes to be placed on farm-stand tables.Skip to next paragraph
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It's a warm Friday night in this former Gold Rush town of 9,500, and the superfriendly, G-rated, Grass Valley Friday Market and Street Festival is under way. Overhead, a fingernail moon looks down from a dark blue sky.
Merchants - booksellers, dressmakers, antique dealers, jewelers, craft artists, a cotton-candy maker - are on the street with goods on display, and the band Free Association plays live music.
At street level this looks like a casually organized small-town festival of commerce and community. But in fact it is the evidence of life-saving decisions made 20 years years ago to revitalize a historic downtown area that was about as inviting as stale bread.
"It's amazing what has happened in Grass Valley in the last five years, much less the last 20 years," says Jim Beitz, who lived here as a child and owns a jewelry store on Mill Street. "I wouldn't live any other place."
Awakening to its potential
Grass Valley has been so successful in remaking itself that in l997, Time magazine declared the town to be one of the Top 10 best places to live in America.
What Grass Valley did in l986, after a department store pulled out of a deflated downtown area already experiencing increased vacancies, was to adopt techniques and concepts for revitalization developed by the National Main Street Center (NMSC) of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington.
NMSC, operating as the umbrella organization for agencies in 45 states, has been largely responsible for the national trend of helping small-town America awaken to its old-new potential.
"Ten years ago 400, towns were involved in the Main Street program," says Amanda West, program director for the NMSC. "Today we have over 1,300 communities using some aspect of the program."
The heart of the program lies in a town's ability to master four elements: encouraging economic restructuring, organizing the community to ensure innovation, improving design in the downtown area, and promoting of a new or stronger image of the town. The result of this incremental process, linked to a community's zest for change, can be a prosperous downtown area. It also means new jobs and being competitive in the face of nearby malls.
In the old Union Building on Mill Street, Teri Paulus plops down some documents on her desk that are key resources for her as executive director of the Grass Valley Downtown Association (GVDA).
"This is a four-point networking library from the state Main Street Program," she says of a report, "which gives me people to contact about all the projects done by other Main Street communities around the country." There is a companion "tool book catalog," providing technical assistance from the California Main Street Program.
Like directors in other small towns, Ms. Paulus is an e-mail, fax, videotape, or phone call away from knowing the organizing details of how another town did a beautification project, saved a historic building, conducted a business survey, or transformed an old movie theater.
But in the final analysis, the town is on its own. "The people who are involved are usually ones who have been in a town a long time," says Ms. West. "The Main Street program doesn't tell them what to do. They live or die on their own effort."
Paulus reports to an all-volunteer, nine-member board of directors representing 235 dues-paying members. In a periodic newsletter, she includes success stories from other towns and progress reports. Cooperating with town government means GVDA can move swiftly when issues arise or funds become available.