Why Coastal Virginia’s Main Streets Matter

Gloucester Main Street Up South and other shops

From Gloucester to Smithfield, our region’s main streets prove small, historic downtowns can survive—and thrive

By Mary Scott Hardaway 

It’s standing room only at Gloucester Brewing Company. A few folks eye the crowded deck and mosey over to the peripheral heaters—they don’t want to miss the show. 

Middle Peninsula celebrities The Ballast Band may have lured out the county en masse this chilly November evening, but it’s the brewery that makes them stay. 

Parents corral boundless toddlers as tweens gather and gossip over soda and food truck tacos. The draft beers—anywhere between 10 to 12 on tap at a time—are imbued with local flavor, boasting names like John Beere, a cream ale, and Mobjack, a black lager. 

“There was nothing like this in Gloucester when we started,” says Glow Brew Co. owner Michael Brewer. 

Brewer is right. Five years ago—when the brewery opened its doors in the building that used to house a small engine repair shop—there was nothing like this. 

Gloucester Brewing Company girls toasting glasses

Today, Gloucester’s main street area is thriving, replete with small businesses ranging from specialty markets to boutiques to body shops and hair salons. The social calendar is fit to burst with festivals and special events. 

Employing a public-private funding model, Gloucester Main Street has expertly honed their vision the past two decades. The slow game has paid off—the county has grown exponentially, bringing in thousands of new residents and dozens of new businesses. 

But Gloucester is not the only small-town historic district creating a vibrant hub of culture and economy. 

From Smithfield, the ham capital of the world, to Phoebus, an eclectic neighborhood within the city Hampton, the main streets of Coastal Virginia are bucking the odds and draw in more happy visitors and residents who are seeing their main streets in a different light.

The Main Street Model

Gloucester’s main street revitalization story begins, in part, 25 years ago when the county welcomed, with much fanfare, the biggest Wal-Mart on the East Coast.

“My husband looked at what was happening and said, ‘Well, that will be the death knell of our main street,’” says Gloucester resident, entrepreneur and philanthropist Adrianne Ryder-Cook Joseph. “No one would have to go anywhere but Wal-Mart for everything they needed.”

But, a real estate maverick, the late Edwin Joseph saw potential in the then-struggling shopping center abutting Main Street. 

Determined to save the county’s charming downtown historic district from going the way of the dodo, the Josephs bought Main Street Center and put it into a trust with the goal of refurbishing the shopping mall—including the installation of a library and post office as anchor businesses—and using the rental income from the tenants to spend on main street support. 

The Gloucester Main Street Preservation Trust (MSPT) was officially founded in 2005 and works together with member organization Gloucester Main Street Association (GMSA) to support and promote all businesses on Main Street. 

One current GMSA initiative in the works is a passport program where customers can get stamps at a store after making a purchase, and after a certain number of purchases or visits, an item is free. 

“We’re looking for ways to encourage people to spend on Main Street,” says Ryder-Cook Joseph. She measures this capital by both dollars—and time—spent. 

The MSPT and GMSA have conducted a series of surveys over the years, gathering what they consider to be invaluable data about how community members are willing to spend their currency, what businesses are hoping to achieve and what future property owners see for themselves. 

“We’ve found that people really like the Daffodil Festival and the Arts Festival and Brent and Becky’s Bulbs,” says Ryder-Cook Joseph, referring to a thick packet of graphs and charts. “They enjoy Machicomoco State Park and hanging out at Gloucester Brewing Co.”

MSPT and GMSA take these “pearls” of information and work to carefully string them together so that they can “play off our county’s different strengths, bring them together, and make it more cohesive,” says Ryder-Cook Joseph.

Ryder-Cook Joseph and the Gloucester Main Street team can unearth these pearls thanks to funding from the  Virginia Main Street Program (VMS), the Commonwealth’s version of the national organization Main Street America. 

Gloucester officially became a Virginia Main Street community in 2016, and in the seven years since has advanced from the first tier of the program, Exploring Main Street, to the final tier, Advancing Main Street. 

Once accepted into the program, communities can access VMS resources ranging from consulting services to technical assistance and can—most importantly—apply for community vitality grants, financial feasibility grants and other funding from Virginia’s Department of Housing and Community Development. 

Some other regional communities that are part of the program include Cape Charles, Onancock and Chincoteague on the Eastern Shore, Suffolk, Tappahannock, Williamsburg, and Hilton Village in Newport News.

While not an official Virginia Main Street Community, Smithfield closely adheres to the program’s four pillars—economic vitality, design, promotion and organization—says Director of Smithfield and Isle of Wight Tourism Judy Winslow. 

“When we went through our downtown renovation, the sidewalks were all redone in brick—you feel like you’re on an old streetscape—and small businesses flocked here,” says Winslow. “We don’t have any chains—when you’re buying something here, you’re paying for someone’s daughter’s dance lessons.”

Smithfield is now a veritable foodie destination with a winery, brewery and distillery plus a smattering of solid restaurants and, of course, Darden’s Country Store and Smokehouse, as well as boutique lodgings like Smithfield Station, Smithfield Inn and Mansion on Main.

Building off the success of the hospitality industry, plus the allure of attractions like a vineyard and fine arts gallery, Smithfield and Isle of Wight’s tourism bureau has grown from what was 20 years ago a “poorly funded” organization run by dogged volunteers, to a fully functioning branch of local government. 

“It’s an extremely incremental process—main street work and downtown development,” says Hampton Roads Retail Alliance president and CEO Jenny Crittenden. 

Crittenden headed up the Gloucester MSPT from 2006 until 2022 and played a pivotal role in turning what could have been just one more defunct downtown into a very profitable economic center for the county. 

According to Virginia Main Street statistics, since being designated an official Virginia Main Street, Gloucester has brought in a total of $1,848,595 of private investment, $706,229 of public investment, 37 new businesses and 133 new jobs.

“What often happens is people can lose their patience with how long it can take, but you have to embrace the model,” says Crittenden. “You have to celebrate the small wins, the medium ones and then finally, the large wins.”

It Takes A Village

When envisioning a beloved main street, one may readily conjure images of red brick sidewalks, commissioned murals and perfectly manicured hanging baskets.

Perhaps not so easily summoned are the machinations of what goes on behind the scenes—the unpaid work and countless hours put in by primarily volunteer-based main street organizations. 

We are in an interesting phase right now,” says Bette Dillehay, director of Mathews County library and chair of Mathews Main Street Committee. “The bulk of people who were initially involved as major volunteers have reached an age where they’ve gone somewhere else to retire.”

Located just north of Gloucester, Mathews has a year-round population of around 9,000 compared to Gloucester’s 39,000. While not officially part of the Virginia Main Street program, Mathews is making strides to revitalize downtown and is currently in phase two of redoing Main Street with the assistance of VDOT and the county. 

Dillehay says part of the draw of their historic downtown is its preserved-in-amber character. “You have a sense of being back in a different time and that’s why I think the kinds of shops we have—antique, vintage—are so popular,” says Dillehay.

In addition to revamping the streetscape, the Mathews Main Street Committee has worked with Virginia State Parks to build a kayak and canoe launch right next to the village and is building out a court green to make it a “setting in which businesses and people are welcome,” says Dillehay.

Attracting new businesses and residents in a rural area can be tricky, of course. Main Streets are tasked with the near Sisyphean task of exuding charm while creating ample businesses opportunities. No easy feat in our fast-paced, technology-driven world.

“We had a speaker who came out to talk to the committee about artificial intelligence,” says Dillehay. “But then he was stranded in town with his electric car—we had nowhere to charge it!”

Two hours southwest of Mathews, another much-loved Main Street is working through similar growing pains. 

“We had no idea how good we had it in the ’80s and ’90s,” laughs Hubbard Peanut Company Director of Sales and Marketing Marshall Rabil. 

Rabil’s grandparents Dot and HJ founded the famous specialty peanut company in 1954 in Southampton County. With booming local businesses and a profitable paper mill, the town was thriving. But then the paper mill shut down and in 1999, and Hurricane Floyd caused Blackwater River to flood, decimating 100 homes and 182 businesses. 

“I moved away when I was 15 and came back when I was 35,” says Rabil, who recently helped put on a very successful two-day Franklin wine and food festival featuring top Virginia chefs and live music benefiting the CROP Foundation and Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia. 

“I look at all the opportunities we have here with our waterways and agriculture, and I wonder what our downtown can be,” he says. “How do we become the gateway to the Tidewater?”

Communities like Franklin and Mathews are tough, though, and statistically, small towns with dedicated Main Streets eventually come out on top. 

“Main Streets are surprisingly resilient,” said award-winning community planner and author Mary Means in a 2021  interview with the American Planning Association, discussing the effects of the pandemic on small town viability.

“Most have come through other existential challenges that were expected to kill them off — think of the Great Depression or the proliferation of shopping malls in the 1970s.”

Means is widely credited with leading the team that first launched the Main Street Program in the late 1970s. “Forty years ago a group of preservationists took steps to save downtown’s historic buildings,” Means told American Planning. “In the process we learned that Main Street lives in America’s heart and is vital to our collective sense of well-being.”

Small Towns, Big Dreams

Like Rabil, Executive Director of Phoebus Partnership Dominique DeBose can see the vast potential in her community.  “There is so much we can do with our businesses, with our streetscape and programming and services, plus our partnership with Fort Monroe,” says DeBose.

Phoebus became a designated Virginia Main Street in 2019 and as of 2022 the incorporated town graduated to the two-year Mobilizing Main Street level. 

DeBose is determined to preserve and enhance the “eclectic” ethos of Phoebus, a charming neighborhood-centric community with a devoted main street that’s home to the Mango Mangeaux empire; the region’s first black brewery, 1865 Brewing Company; The American Theatre; and more. 

Unlike many of Virginia’s other coastal main streets, Phoebus is also surrounded by the hustle and bustle of a major metropolitan area. These surroundings can be a bane—no one is a fan of HRBT traffic—but also a boon.

“The interstate situation right now isn’t great,” admits DeBose. But once all the construction is completed, Phoebus’s prime location on the HRBT’s western side means potential. “We could be inundated with opportunities.”

As Phoebus continues to evolve and take advantage of its Virginia Main Street status, it may look across the Coleman Bridge to Gloucester for further inspiration. 

“I like to say, ‘It’s our time to shine,’” says Gloucester Director of Economic Development Sherry Spring, 

According to Spring, in the last fiscal year Gloucester County has welcomed 47 new commercial businesses—twice what the county had in the last eight years combined. 

Three new housing developments are slated to bring in more than 1,500 single family homes to Gloucester in the next decade, says Spring. 

More and more people can work remotely because of the pandemic, and many Millennials are part of what Winslow calls a “boomerang effect,” returning to their revitalized hometowns to raise their families.

Gloucester’s new and returning residents—most in the 35-44 age range, according to Virginia Main Street statistics—are likely lured in by the slow, waterfront way of life in Gloucester. 

But they’ll stay for live music bingo at Gloucester Brewing Co. They’ll linger at Kelsick Specialty Market, ordering glasses of wine and charcuterie boards. They’ll wander into Gloucester’s new fine arts museum, curated by Ryder-Cook Joseph, taking in the work of longtime Gloucester folk artist Kacey Carneal.

Perhaps they’ll stay and stay and stay, like Brewer. “We moved here when I was five, my parents are in the same house I grew up in, my wife Laura and I have been in our house for 25 years,” says Brewer. “It’s a good, solid place to be.” 

Photos by Sara Harris, David Uhrin, VistaGraphics or courtesy of various Coastal Virgina-based tourism organizations.

About the Writer
Gloucester native Mary Scott Hardaway is a full-time mom and freelance writer who currently resides in Richmond with her husband, young son and boisterous hound dog. She’s loved telling locally focused stories since she served as co-editor-in-chief (with her twin sister) of Gloucester High’s Duke’s Dispatch

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Mary Scott Hardaway

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