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Consultants give Blacksburg a downtown game plan

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Blacksburg Mayor Leslie Hager-Smith says the findings of Development
Strategies were “eye-opening.” Photo by Don Petersen

Consultants sometimes get a bad rap, but Development Strategies helped Blacksburg Mayor Leslie Hager-Smith realize something about her town of roughly 45,000 people.

“One of the very first things they said to us was eye-opening, but I knew as soon as I heard it I was hearing truth,” Hager-Smith says. “Blacksburg doesn’t really have an authentic downtown.”

Indeed, asked to define the boundaries of downtown Blacksburg, most residents responding to a survey focused on a few blocks of the town’s Main Street.

“Their observation and a lot of their recommendations are around trying to expand our commercial center into something that behaves more like an authentic downtown,” Hager-Smith says of the St. Louis-based consultants.

The Development Strategies recommendations — unveiled in January after just over a year of discussions, surveys and public meetings — expand the definition of downtown, dividing it into six districts with each having a distinct identity.

“Each area focuses on a different strength,” says Matt Hanratty, an assistant to Blacksburg’s town manager.

One, for example, focuses on student housing and mixed-use development along the edge of Virginia Tech’s campus. Another focuses on historic preservation. Another aims to complement Virginia Tech’s planned Creativity and Innovation District. Others focus on residential or mixed-use development. “As a whole collective,” Hanratty says, “we can kind of have our cake and eat it too.”

What most people think of as downtown Blacksburg now can continue to develop as a walkable, amenity-filled, human-scaled district. Other areas accommodate growth and provide affordable housing, one of the town’s biggest challenges. Buying a median-priced house in Blacksburg — $288,000, according to the website Zillow — is a stretch for the town’s median household income, $52,075.

That imbalance, says Hanratty, can be an impediment behind the state and national rates of startup businesses. For young, would-be entrepreneurs, “there’s nowhere cool to live,” Hanratty says, and much of what’s available is unaffordable or geared toward some of Tech’s 27,000 undergraduates. If the town is going to thrive, he says, its plans need to include higher-density — and therefore more affordable — housing.

“We’re going to see development pressures,” Hanratty says. “The university is in active growth mode — and they’ve said as much now, so it’s no secret. We can either stick our heads in the sand and it’s going to happen around us in ways that we don’t particularly like, or we can be part of the conversation and help plan for where we’d like to see it. It’s not going to be a perfect mix, but we need to be proactive about it.”

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