Neglect, Vision may Doom Square
A Friday night in April 2021 at the Square: Citizens flock to the popular COVID 19 retreat in Petersburg but "Top" City Officials and the Main Street Petersburg President don't want the square to remain on Sycamore.
Despite Public support Square may be on life support
By Craig Richards, LNN USA.com
Editor’s Note: In full disclosure, the Old Towne Square concept and implementation was originated by a group of Petersburg business owners including the current CEO of LNN USA and author of this story.
PETERSBURG – An ingenious response to the challenges of COVID 19 faces pending doom. With the outbreak of the pandemic both citizens and businesses faced overwhelming issues. With obstacles obstructing small businesses to operate and citizens left with limited abilities to purchase goods and services, the pandemic paralyzed the local economy. But a small group of individuals formed a think tank developing a creative and profitable capitalist creation – Old Towne Square.
Staying within health regulations and building a conscience between local government, state agencies, Old Towne business owners and the public, a public dining/gathering area was developed. The square ensured proper COVID 19 protocols were adhered to while also allowing area small businesses to continue to operate.
The driving force behind the operation was local business entrepreneurs Dino Lunsford and Craig Richards who developed the plan and financed the bulk of the original cost to launch the square. The original creators formed a viable option taking the Old Towne from a ghost town to boomtown. A few months after opening the two were re-imbursed by Main Street Petersburg, who took over the day-to-day operation of the square. The Main Street Peterburg funding for re-imbursement originated from the City of Petersburg through the C.A.R.E.S. Act. But the square now faces a possible transition from boom to bust.
As the summer of 2021 approaches, disunity inside the Main Street organization leadership concerning the square, elements inside the city opposed to the long-term future of the project, and an overall lack of clear vision has relegated the once revitalizing and energizing project into the realm of questionable sustainability.
That questionable status is aided by the current state of the square. The original wooden tables are showing rapid deterioration and distress. Some patrons have expressed concern over groups of folks loitering later in the evening, increased excessive volumes of music outside of the sporadic live entertainment, the occasional smell of possible marijuana and an overall lack of police presence.
Early branding and safety efforts are now facing erosion was well. Lunsford, Richards, and The Apothic Company owner Susan Stewart had developed the original “Old Towne Square” name and banner colors to catch the vibe of the Old Towne ambiance and to be inclusive of the entire “Old Towne” business community. The new Main Street Peterburg produced signage has changed the brand name to “Sycamore Square.” That change may have been an inadvertent oversite of early branding. “We thought it sounded better,” said Main Street Petersburg Treasurer Richard Cuthbert. He explained that they had wanted to upgrade the banner and decided the new name was better; a decision Cuthbert stated may have been a miss step in hindsight.
As for the security issue, Police Chief Travis Christian said, “With warm weather coming we’ve seen more crowds forming and we intend on keeping a presence in the Square.”
Still more concerning is that the future of the overwhelmingly publicly supported, COVID defying oasis, may just fall prey to the organization assigned to nurture it. Current Main Street President and City of Petersburg Director of Tourism, Sergei Troubetzkoy has publicly stated that businesses in Old Towne do not support the project. But that statement alone could be misleading. A door-to-door poll of some fifteen businesses showed a predominantly favorable disposition to the Square while three businesses polled were opposed to it.
Troubetzkoy does not believe the square should be a long-term amenity, at least not on Sycamore Street. “You do not want to permanently block a main street,” he said. “Having a square like that is great – it’s about the location,” said Troubetzkoy. The Main Street Petersburg organization will be discussing how to proceed with the square idea post COVID. Troubetzkoy said its not the concept but the location. He considers a big town square, possibility in the Art Park on Old Street or a series of smaller squares strategically placed throughout the town as a likely possibility.
A defining success of the Old Towne Square has been the loosened ABC guidelines allowing the public consumption of alcohol in the square. That is expected to end when COVID restrictions end. However, Main Street is open to pursuing the possibility of discussing guidelines allowing individuals to travel within specific blocks of Old Towne with alcoholic beverages. This is not an uncommon procedure in other Virginia communities and other major U.S. cities.
New York, who’s dining and entertainment industry has been decimated by COVID 19 restrictions, is seeing a city ready to permanently embrace outdoor dining space. The New York Times reported the Mayor as saying “It was a big, bold experiment in supporting a vital industry and reimagining our public space – and it worked. As we begin a long-term recovery, we’re proud to extend and expand this effort to keep New York City the most vibrant city in the world. It’s time for a new tradition.”
New York is not the only area bracing the opportunity. “From Tampa to Tulsa, Seattle to Syracuse and Brooklyn to Burlington, cities are embracing parklets like never before,” writes Andrew Hirschfeld in OZY. “Urban designers, city planners and architecture firms alike are scrambling to come up with innovative designs for parklets, prompting competitions like the Design for Distancing planning initiative in Baltimore, Maryland, focused on outdoor spaces.”
While not specifically mentioning names or departments, Troubetzkoy said “top” leadership inside the city want the square to come down immediately following COVID. He says those top officials are not opposed to a square idea, just not on Sycamore.
And while Petersburg is buried deep in 2021-2022 budgeting, their silence on the topic of the Old Towne Square is deafening. For a project that has created tax revenue retention and the positive Petersburg public relations the city so desperately needs, the silence from “top” city officials could be showing a deficient in vision in terms of creative economic development.
Cuthbert continues to be a driving force for raising revenue. He has written grants to Cultureworks, an arts foundation out of Richmond, for $18,000; another Community Development Block Grant from the City and is awaiting a re-imbursement of $5,000 for last year’s CDBG grant. But these financial commitments do little to secure longevity of the square past the 30-day post COVID extension the City has agreed to.
As with many ailing projects, there are glimmers of hope. Main Street Petersburg intends on bringing live music back every Friday night starting in May. Lunsford is planning on providing a trailer for the mobile stage. The organization is still seeking grants to fund long term entertainment, improvements, and features to the area. Stephen Gay, a local graphic artist has created new banners he is putting up.
Cuthbert also believes that raising $60,000 to hardscape a permanent square is not impossible but that would take a serious commitment from the Main Street board and the City to validate such fundraising efforts. That fund raising push would include $18,000 to replace the wooden benches with high quality rubberized metal tables. He sees the potential of the square but also the challenge. “I’d love to keep it but there is so much effort needed to try to keep it,” Cuthbert said.
When key elements of the organization assigned to develop the project have reservations about the long-term viability of the project, its likelihood of perpetual existence may be futile. One thing remains true. A project birthed out of necessity has, according to at least two local entrepreneurs, saved their businesses, generated taxes for the city, maintained employment for hundreds downtown, established a safe and relaxing haven for the public and boosted the image of Petersburg itself.
The Sycamore location is secure for now. “The agreement that we made is that it was to stand until 30 days after COVID,” said Darnetta Tyus, Deputy City Manager of Community Affairs. She also confirmed that everything can be revisited but she had no idea if the city will entertain any long-term proposals for the square. That is likely because no long-term concept has been presented to the city.
What is unclear is why a singular project with so many advantages to the economic and sociological make-up of the city does not have a more boisterous champion to defend it. Even more confusing is why it would need defending. Ultimately the current willingness to postpone long term discussions of the future of the square will likely result in one conclusion – the death of a very successful amenity.