A Historic Treasure

Winchester, Virginia

Quaint streets are lined with lovingly restored buildings dating all the way back to the mid-1700s. The Old Town is anchored by an outdoor mall bustling with foot traffic. This lively gathering space features al fresco dining, independently owned shops, a splash pad, a children’s museum, and architectural gems like the Taylor Hotel and the Georgian style Old Court House Civil War Museum. Preservation and revitalization efforts have fueled innovative public private partnerships, stimulating the economy and encouraging entrepreneurial ventures. This business friendly environment combines with a wealth of tourist attractions to make Winchester a destination that is not to be missed.

Once the site of a Shawnee camping ground, the city of Winchester was founded by Colonel James Wood in 1744, making it the oldest city in Virginia west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. George Washington arrived in the frontier settlement just four years later to launch his surveying career at the age of 16. “George Washington is a prominent part of our early history,” says Interim City Manager Craig Gerhart. “We couldn’t have done it without him,” adds Becky Graves, Docent at the George Washington Office museum. Washington also launched his political career in Winchester. “The legend is that he ran on a platform of civility and reduced drunkenness among the troops – and he lost,” Mr. Gerhart shares. “So the next time that he ran for election he opened his pockets and made sure that all those who might vote had ample drink should they want it. He won that election.”

The Founding Father also commanded the Virginia Regiment during the French and Indian War from his headquarters in Winchester, and his modest log and stone office still stands. The rustic building is located in a grassy square opposite a statue of a pig inside a pigpen – an ode to Washington’s first act as an elected official, which was to clean up the community’s polluted water supply by ordering that the town’s pigs no longer roam free.

Winchester’s list of historic attractions goes on and on, and includes everything from the town’s oldest remaining house (built in 1754), to the site of Fort Loudoun (commanded by George Washington during the French and Indian War), antebellum mansions, and the Handley Library, one of the nation’s most ornate public libraries. The building was completed in 1913 at an enormous cost, and its stunning architecture dramatically overlooks the town like a misplaced Old World relic.

Civil War buffs flock to Winchester to see Stonewall Jackson’s headquarters, Confederate and Union cemeteries, the remains of Star Fort, and countless battlefields. “Winchester was located in a hot bed of Civil War activity,” Mr. Gerhart explains. “Control of the city shifted back and forth between the Union and the Confederacy multiple times throughout the Civil War. We can identify five battles or skirmishes that were fought in Winchester proper that resulted in a change of control of the city.” Indeed, nearly 100 battles and skirmishes took place within a 25 mile radius of the city. “There is a very, very rich Civil War connection here. There are battlefields aplenty to visit.”

Winchester is also the home of country music legend Patsy Cline, and her childhood house has been meticulously restored to create a remarkably authentic experience. The patterns Patsy and her mother referenced to sew her signature cowgirl dresses are still laid out beside the pedal-operated Singer sewing machine. The windowsills in the classic, 1950s kitchen are still lined with the whimsical salt and pepper shakers that Patsy collected. The bedspreads that her mother made by hand are still on the beds, which are crammed into a single bedroom that the poverty stricken family all shared. Patsy’s success saved the family from financial ruin, and this accomplishment is poignantly summarized in a note that the singer scribbled across a photo of herself that is still displayed above the piano. The inscription simply reads: “Mom, we finally made it.” The house attracts large crowds of fans who appreciate the uncanny attention to detail and accuracy. “We get people from all over the world,” says Docent Tim Poole. Patsy Cline fans will also enjoy visiting Winchester’s Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, which features Patsy Cline memorabilia as well as an extensive collection of baskets, ceramics, furniture, paintings, silver, textiles, and more.

While many small, southern towns have allowed their historic treasures to fall into disrepair, Winchester has done what it takes to turn history into tourism experiences. “More than many communities, we have preserved what is historically and architecturally significant about Winchester,” Mr. Gerhart points out. “So, when you are in Winchester, you sense the quality of the built environment and its connection to our historic past.”

Winchester’s dedication to preservation, along with the city’s growing tourism sector, is creating lucrative business opportunities. Furthermore, incentive programs for restoring historical structures are coupled with exciting Greenfield opportunities. “Winchester is a good place to do business because we offer opportunities for redevelopment of existing structures, but we also have open space, particularly in some of our major economic development corridors,” Mr. Gerhart explains. Businesses seeking land will find plenty available in lucrative areas like the Amherst Street corridor, which is adjacent to the top ranked Winchester Medical Center.

One of the best examples of Winchester’s revitalization efforts and creative partnerships is the restoration of the Taylor Hotel. Built in 1848, this antebellum treasure was the social center of the city before the Civil War and the headquarters of several generals during the conflict. In the twentieth century, the once regal building became a five and dime and its grand, three storey porch was torn down. The structure soon fell into disrepair.

A few years ago, government and private investors came together to save the historic building. “The partnership that was put together between the city government, a private development group, the Economic Development Authority, [as well as] funding through HUD and historic tax credits is one of the most creative things that I have ever seen in my 40 years of local government,” says Mr. Gerhart. “And I think that is a big example of why this is a good place for businesses to come and for existing businesses to expand.”

Today, the Taylor Hotel restorations are complete – and nothing short of amazing. “It is intricate to the point of almost being an art form. It is simply beautiful.” The dramatic, three tiered porch and massive columns have been rebuilt, and now face Winchester’s Old Town Pedestrian Mall. The gorgeous façade welcomes foot traffic into a new Cajun restaurant, where diners enjoy an authentic southern meal surrounded by rich, reclaimed wood and original stonework. Downstairs has been transformed into a community gathering place, complete with a bar and stage. The upper floors are now the site of apartments and condominiums. “All of that has been put together in a facility that, if you had seen it four years ago, you wouldn’t have bet a nickel that it was targeted for anything but demolition,” Mr. Gerhart remarks. And the work continues; soon, the vacant lot behind the building will be transformed into a vibrant outdoor performance and gathering space.

Successful projects like this are a common occurrence in Winchester. “We have a very strong strategic plan that targets redevelopment areas where we think we can help grow the economy,” Mr. Gerhart explains. “We have a very active business development grant program for folks who are coming in and occupying vacant structures in order to promote quality redevelopment,” he adds. “We also do some façade loans for businesses sprucing up the appearance of their business.”

The city is as dedicated to supporting the general business community as it is to maintaining the historic charm. “We have worked very closely with each of the large industries in Winchester through various economic development incentives and workforce development initiatives [to provide] anything and everything they need,” says Economic Development Coordinator Tyler Schenck. “We continue to work hand in hand with them to help their stay in Winchester be as impactful as it can be and to keep them here as long as possible.”

Winchester’s ideal location is also a boon to business. While Winchester’s population is only around 27,000, the city “really is the urban center for its region, the northern Shenandoah valley,” Mr. Gerhart explains. Winchester is also less than an hour’s drive from Northern Virginia, a region with nearly 3 million people that is bursting with economic activity. “Being within driving distance of the robust employment and cultural center around the nation’s capital, and northern Virginia specifically, really gives us access to an incredibly vibrant business market,” Mr. Gerhart points out. Yet the city is also far enough away from Washington D.C. that it boasts a cost of living 30 percent lower than Northern Virginia’s.

Healthcare is one of Winchester’s most important industries, and the city’s highly ranked medical facilities provide care for the entire region. Shenandoah Valley University is also located in Winchester, as well as a sizable Rubbermaid manufacturing facility. One of the largest apple export markets in America, Winchester is perhaps best known for its thriving apple industry. Each spring, over 250,000 visitors descend on the city to enjoy its famous Apple Blossom Festival.

Tourism is increasing at an impressive rate, creating even more business opportunities in Winchester. “Our tourism has really expanded,” Mr. Gerhart shares. “Folks are coming here from lots of places and great distances.” And these tourists like what they see. “Almost universally, what we hear when people walk onto our downtown mall – with its beautiful open space, outdoor dining and architectural features – is, ‘Wow! Who knew this was here?’ And then, before they leave, they let us know they’re coming back.”

July 17, 2018, 7:35 AM EDT

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