Main Street Revitalization

Posted: March 27, 2011 in Uncategorized
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The Alban Arts and Conference Center on Main Street, St. Albans, WV.

Main Street, St. Albans, WV, 1965

It’s a Saturday afternoon and the Alban Theater is packed.  Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello are starring in Beach Blanket Bingo.  As part of the pre-movie entertainment, Uncle Willie, a local clown celebrity, is telling silly jokes and performing goofy magic tricks that only kids could enjoy.  “I make big money,” Uncle Willie says, as he unfolds a bath towel-sized dollar bill.

Main Street has everything from the “five and dime” to upscale men’s and women’s clothing stores.  Two-way traffic and parallel parking on both sides jam the street.  It is the center of town and in every sense of the word, it is truly St. Albans’ Main Street.

Main Street, St. Albans, WV, 1981

A few years earlier, the St. Albans Mall opened a few blocks away.  Many of the Main Street shops have made the move.  In an effort to compete, plans are developed to convert Main Street into a pedestrian mall.  Plans include an anchor tenant.  A loop roadway is built to enable traffic to circle the new pedestrian mall.

Within a year or so, the project is complete.  An iconic clock tower is built at the center of the mall.  At one end is a gazebo for public events.  At the other end, a fountain.  In between, lots of benches, shelters and landscaping.  It’s postcard perfect.

But no anchor tenant.  And few shoppers.

Main Street, St. Albans, WV, 2004

Main Street is synonymous with vacant storefronts and trouble.  “Main Street” seems to have moved to Sixth Avenue, where new banks and office buildings have sprung up.  Some city leaders see the old Main Street as a lost cause, not wanting to invest another dime.  In an attempt to reverse the decline, Mayor Richard Milam directs an experiment to see what kind of effect reopening the street to vehicular traffic might have.  Obstructions are removed and parking bumpers are used to form “curbs” to control the traffic.  Vacant storefronts begin to attract new merchants.

Main Street, St. Albans, WV, 2007

Mayor Dick Callaway directs the reconstruction of a true Main Street.  The current version is one-way, with angled parking on one side.  There are still issues associated with after-hours troublemakers but more businesses are showing interest.

Main Street, St. Albans, WV, 2008

The St. Albans Regional Development Authority purchases the old Alban Theater and begins the transformation into the Alban Arts and Conference Center.  More businesses open.

Main Street, St. Albans, WV, 2011

The ongoing streetscape projects the City has undertaken over the last several years revamp B Street and clean up the west end of Main Street.  Sassafras Junction, a puppet theater, begins operation.  The revitalization of Main Street is stronger than ever.

Images of St. Albans' past are evident even as the revitalization moves forward.

(With regard to the historical accuracy of the facts presented above, I know they are substantially correct; however, I may be off a year or so in my dates or other minor details.  Feel free to offer corrections.)

Main Street is still in transition.  With the way our behavior changes in reaction to our ever-changing world, it will always be in some sort of transition.  What it will be tomorrow is not what it is today.  And it most definitely will not be what it was yesterday.  1965 is long gone.

But the future is promising. It’s beginning to feel like a special place again. The Alban glows.  Street lights and banners contribute to the feeling.  You can sense a growing community of the arts.

There is still work to do.  As Main Street begins to feel safer and more alive, it will start to draw people who just want a place to hang out.  Maybe have a cup of coffee.  Maybe enjoy an ice cream cone before the bluegrass show at the Alban.  And before you know it, it has become a place for people.  Wouldn’t that be cool?

  1. Phil Evans says:

    Good post, interesting to see the ebb and flow since the 60’s. You might take a look at Main Street in Sutton, WV sometime. My parents grew up there in the 50’s and the Main Street was picturesque with brick street, movie theater and fountain drug stores. It fell into disrepair in the 70’s and 80’s, but seems to be making a bit of a comeback now (as recently profiled in the WV Gazette). Many of the storefronts and some of the old signs remain.

  2. Lee Anne (Taylor) Northway says:

    Thanks for this, Joe. It is great to see Main St. making a comeback. I rarely visited St. Albans in the 30 years after graduating from college, and when I did, it was sad to see Main St. so abandoned. In the last couple of years when I’ve been back, Main St. has been a destination–for the Cafe (which will always be McClung and Morgans in my mind), the Alban, and just to look around.

    It is interesting that here in little Brainerd, MN we have experienced a similar cycle with our “Main St.” (though it is named Laurel). It is coming back, with conscious effort on the part of the City.

    I had forgotten about Uncle Willy…..

  3. Hey, Joe-

    I saw Lee Anne post this on facebook. I love the revitalization of old urban areas in general- and this one in particular. Every town needs areas where people can walk around and bump into people while getting some ice cream…So good to see St. Albans moving in that direction. My son, Christopher, lives in Knoxville, TN and they have amazingly reclaimed downtown since he first went architecture school there in 1998.

    Thanks for the post!

    Annette (Curry) Crislip

    P.S. I was once the lucky winner who got to go up on stage and grab as much money as I could hold out of a huge money change jar! Oh, that Uncle Willie.

  4. Joseph Bird says:

    Thanks, guys.

    Phil, as a matter of fact I make it a point to go to Sutton every now and then to see what’s going on and check out the progress. Another WV cool town.

    Good to hear from you Annette. I had forgotten about the money grab jar.

    Thanks for the plugs, Lee Anne.

  5. Tracy says:

    Hey Joe!
    And now Shuckers is open. Good food. Casual atmosphere.
    I think an ice cream/coffee shop would be great!!!
    I would love to have a “Main Street” not only for me and Joe – but for my grandchildren to enjoy and have pleasant memories of.

    PS And thanks for the blogsite.

  6. Dale Withrow says:

    Joe and Tracy,

    The good news is that an art gallery/coffee shop/pastry shop is in the works for Olde Main. I understand the opening date is tentative at this time but coming soon!

    I grew up in St. Albans in the 50’s and “moved away” until about 6 years ago. It has been a delight to see the transition of Main Street back to its former glory. Working with the Founders’ Day Committee designing “historic” postcards has been a real walk down memory lane. Main Street photos being used include a parade in 1953 and and a scene in the mid 60’s with the street full of cars and people and every building occupied.

    A true blast from the past! Thanks for the memories.

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