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Steps to revitalize a town in decline

What will it take to revitalize Colonial Beach — to restore the longed-for days when the town was known as the “Playground of the Potomac?”
Colonial Beach found its economic niche in the early 1900s when steamships would deliver tourists to its scenic river shoreline.  Hotels, amusement centers and restaurants flourished driven by money spent by urban tourists seeking time away from the metropolitan DC area and fun times on the water with family and friends.  

As automobiles became the new mode of transport and steamship lines closed down, by 1930 the economy in Colonial Beach began to decline. From 1949 through 1958 Colonial Beach found a new tourism niche and offered gambling establishments located off the shoreline and on the waters of the Potomac River that belonged to Maryland.  In 1958, however, Maryland effectively closed down the beach’s casinos and a devastating shoreline fire in 1963 destroyed all the once thriving on-the-river businesses.
Since that time, Colonial Beach has been a town in decline.  The few motels, cottages and bed and breakfasts suffer from an overall visitor occupancy rate of less than 68 percent.  Restaurant owners are forced to limit hours of operation or close down during the winter. The town’s biggest source of revenue has become real estate and other taxes during a time when the housing market is at its lowest point since the Great Depression.   
Homeowners at the beach are unable and unwilling to shoulder the costs of funding an aging town infrastructure in need of millions of dollars of repair, town schools and a town police department. Budgets have been cut and new sources of revenue such as parking fees and cigarette taxes have not yielded the revenue needed to offset the cost of running the town. Added to the burden on homeowners is the double taxation on real property imposed by the town and Westmoreland County.
Colonial Avenue, the main entrance to the beachfront is dilapidated.  When pressed for first impressions of the town, Richard Hunt of Peloton Research Partners, who is performing an economic analysis of the town, admitted “When I first showed up here, I went down Colonial Avenue. There were no lights on in the motel. I saw concrete, a ‘No Trespassing’ sign and a buckled boardwalk. As I drove down Washington Avenue, I saw lots of vacant lots.”   
Thanks to a $30,000 grant from the federally funded Housing and Community Development program, the town has partnered with Land Studio, PC to develop a comprehensive 200-300 page application that will be submitted to the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development for consideration of obtaining a Business District Revitalization Planning Grant. If successful, an Implementation Grant of up to $1 million could be awarded to the town.  
Land Studio held a public meeting on Dec. 7 to inform residents of the progress made to date. Results of initial surveys filled in by residents have been compiled, a management team is in place, a physical inventory of residential areas and business locations has been completed, a Comprehensive Plan has been developed, and enterprise zoning and resort commercial zoning has been put in place.
Town assets have been identified and include the waterfront, small town atmosphere and an abundance of historic events, activities and buildings. Also noted as an asset by Bill Spivey of Land Studio, is the significant amount of town-owned land, which provides “a clean slate for opportunities.”  
The next step for the town is to create a vision — an identity for the town. Is Colonial Beach a tourist destination?  What businesses are or aren’t here? Are there enough overnight accommodations to attract tourists? What are the demographics of the town? How does Colonial Beach fit into the region?  
Carol Rizzo of Land Studio gave a timeline of steps that lead to Sept. 15, 2012, when the grant application must be submitted. A market analysis will be complete by March 15, 2011, with a community meeting scheduled around April 15, 2011, and completion of a marketing and branding plan is scheduled for May 15, 2011. Resident input and engagement is vital to the successful award of the implementation grant.  All residents are encouraged to check on the progress of the application and submit information.  Spivey encouraged residents by saying “Your enthusiasm will make the project a success.”
Spivey further noted that although the grant is not going to be enough to accomplish full revitalization, the grant will “act as a foundation for future grants.”  According to Rizzo whatever phase of the completed action plan is put into place first, “It should be highly visible. This is an on-going long-term improvement plan.”  
For more information and to stay involved you can visit www.colonialbeachva.net or www.landstudiopc.com.

 Kathy Flanagan

201407chamber

 

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