Sunday, February 10, 2013

A fresh vision for downtown Christiansburg

Christian Trejbal

Recent columns

From the RoundTable blog

Twenty years ago, Christiansburg splashed onto national television on ABC's "Primetime Live" as an example of a community adrift. Chain restaurants and stores had squeezed out the historic character; downtown was rapidly fading. Today, downtown is faded. It is a pale imitation of a vibrant community's heart.

A trio of young professionals hopes to change that.

Walking downtown Christiansburg's streets at dusk, it is hard to imagine the hustle and bustle that once occurred there. Stores and eateries close early now. Even the coffee shop locks its doors at 5.

It's not all gloom. A few years ago, the town, with financial assistance from the state, dropped more than $1million to make Main Street more pedestrian friendly, charming and accessible. Parking meters disappeared. Sidewalks widened and received a makeover. Trees were replaced. Fancy-looking crosswalks went down in intersections.

Those cosmetic improvements remain, but downtown still lacks vitality. When people want to have fun, dine out or shop, they head to the area around New River Mall at the north end of town or escape from the chain restaurants and go to Blacksburg.

David Franusich, his wife Christina O'Connor and friend David Verde believe downtown could be much more. Modeling on the success of Downtown Blacksburg Inc., which organizes festivals and events in that town, they have formed Downtown Christiansburg Inc.

They are starting slowly, soliciting public input with a survey on their website (, asking residents and businesses what they want in their downtown, and generally building a foundation for revitalization.

"We see other young professionals who live in Christiansburg, and not just young professionals, but other people who live in Christiansburg and always go to Blacksburg to do stuff," Franusich said. "Downtown Christiansburg has a lot of potential that has been overlooked for a long time."

The stars might have aligned for success. The economy slowly but surely is rebounding. With it, businesses will start to look for new opportunities. Christiansburg offers them a very good one.

The town has appealed to young professionals in recent years. Virginia Tech and the bustling technology and creative businesses that surround it draw this coveted demographic to the New River Valley. Many of them, however, cannot afford the lofty real estate prices in Blacksburg. Christiansburg is an affordable alternative where they can buy a home instead of living in a cramped condominium or apartment.

They are not college students who want to binge drink into the wee hours and stumble out of the bars at closing time. They want a local watering hole, some nice dining options and interesting shopping. Their college days are behind them.

Many longtime Christiansburg residents do not want to become Blacksburg, and Franusich does not want that either. He envisions a mature commercial area, one that would cater to young professionals without disrupting the community. He wants annual events downtown that appeal to professionals and families. He knows that many of those young professionals will soon have families of their own.

"We want Christiansburg to be its own place," he said. "We are trying to work with all of the parties involved and see what we can do."

Christiansburg is not the sort of community that would welcome young people brashly jumping in and telling everyone how to do things. It is, however, the sort of community that would listen to sincere young people who want to bring diverse groups together to build something better. Downtown Christiansburg Inc. is meeting with the right stakeholders and building interest before launching any grand campaign.

Franusich is relatively new to town, but he has wasted no time getting involved. He has already landed a spot on the town planning commission.

Perhaps his fresh perspective and leadership are the jump-start needed in a town that has accepted the status quo for too long. "I really can't let myself complain about things a whole lot if I'm not going to try to do stuff to change it," he said.

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