The brand new CEO of the recently re-branded National Main Street Center characterized Culpeper as "a remarkable little place" during a tour downtown Monday.
"It's a great community firing on all cylinders," said Patrice Frey, of Chicago, during a stop for iced coffee in the new location of Raven's Nest on East Davis Street. "I think it's a great example of what can be achieved in smaller communities, particularly using the Main Street program. You know, it doesn't happen overnight, but through sustained hard work over time."
A Virginia Main Street Community since 1988, Culpeper was one of the first communities to join the downtown revitalization program that's part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Culpeper Renaissance, Inc. manages the program renamed the National Main Street Center July 1. Through generation of millions of dollars in private and public investment over many years, CRI and Main Street facilitated the downtown rebirth.
And it's not over yet.
Frey toured sites downtown Monday epitomizing the continued renaissance in Culpeper, namely the recently restored and expanded State Theatre on Main Street, a 75-year-old art deco venue that used to be segregated.
Culpeper developer and native Greg Yates, who initiated the State Theatre rebirth, coordinated the tour with Frey. He considers the live arts and cinema venue at the State Theatre "the new economic stimulus downtown," and that has appeared to be the case most nights the venue is illuminated, with foot traffic downtown busier than usual.
National Trust Board Member Joe Grills of Rapidan, a retired IBM executive and former chairman of the Montpelier Foundation, invited Frey to visit Culpeper to show off its success. He believes success breeds more of the same.
"I look at what Greg Yates has done," Grills said. "The more successful you are the more people want to be part of it."
How to sustain success in Main Street communities is something the National Trust feels is important.
"When I talked to CRI a month ago, they said Main Street 101 was wonderful, now we need a Main Street 201," Grills said. "They're right, and that's what we've got to start thinking about - how do we keep this thing going?"
Other sites Frey visited downtown Monday with the local group included Frost Cafe, Green Roost, Harriet's General, the Museum of Culpeper History, the Suites at 249 and the Culpeper Visitor's Center in the Depot.
It was Frey's first visit to Culpeper, and she was impressed with what she saw. Frey, originally of Seattle, noted as positives the low vacancy rate and creative mix of retail and restaurants offered downtown, as well as the prevalence of downtown living, particularly above the storefronts.
"What you see here in Culpeper, and we're also starting to see in a number of other smaller communities throughout the country, is you've got people and empty nesters who are coming back to smaller urban areas, taking apartments or condos on the second floor - that is really exciting," she said. "They want to be able to walk to their local coffee shop and walk to the theater and not have to worry about getting a car to go do every little thing."
Former director of sustainability with the National Trust, Frey has a master's in historic preservation from the University of Pennsylvania. Having been named CEO of the National Main Street Center in May, she is on a tour of communities nationwide, with Culpeper being among the first she visited after towns in Texas, the state with the most Main Street communities.
Frey said her outlook for Main Street America is positive.
"The recession has affected things, but overall people are really looking for this authentic experience," she said. "Where you are going to find that is in the heart of your community, your downtown, your Main Streets. I think the prospect for Main Streets nationally is excellent. We have our challenges, but overall we are in good times ahead."
Last year, Culpeper was named among recipients of the National Trust's Great American Main Street Awards.