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In Richmond, beautification means business

This spring, the Fulton community in Richmond, Va. is ready to take some big steps in its revitalization efforts for the neighborhood’s commercial corridor and beyond.

Helen Dunlap presents the LISC MetroEdge/CORE evaluation at a local meeting to show the community's opportunities to support retail growth.

Those steps aren’t being taken lightly, though. With two wide-ranging studies of local conditions in hand—and with discussions with stakeholders on what those studies mean—the community has mapped out a plan to make the community vibrant again.

Newly planted trees and spruced up sidewalks will signal new beginnings for Fulton says Helen Dunlap of LISC MetroEdge’s Corridors of Retail Excellence (CORE) program, and cultural events are bringing out residents.

“What we’re working on right now is to try to work on beautification projects to make the area more enticing and to give the area a safer presence for people,” said Dru Gillie, president of Fulton’s business association. “That’s really just the first phase of making it look and feel like a safer and more business-friendly area. After we get the people feeling better about the area, then we can start attracting more businesses. [And] that will in turn attract people to frequent those businesses.”

In the 1940s and ‘50s, Fulton’s shopping complex at the intersection of Louisiana Street and Williamsburg Avenue was the home of a busy retail corridor, including many black-owned businesses.

That level of retail energy is now gone, but the community has many other assets: Nearly half the residents live in owner-occupied homes, many in single-family one- and two-story houses at the top of the hill, and the small-town vibe is enhanced by large parks, hills and ravines.

At the Greater Fulton’s Future steering committee meeting last December, Dunlap used the LISC MetroEdge/CORE evaluation to point out that the neighborhood is diverse in many ways: Approximately 59 percent of Fulton’s trade area work age is between 18-64 years of age. About 34 percent of the households earn above $50,000 annually. Seventy-two percent of its residents are African-American and 23 percent are Caucasian.

Dunlap also pointed out that $17 million annually is spent in nearby retail establishments similar to those stores already in Fulton, in categories such as general merchandise, motor vehicles and parts, and food and beverage. That means the Fulton businesses have potential to grow by attracting more customers from those nearby neighborhoods. 

Documenting what’s needed

Fulton’s spring plans are outlined in two major documents: The Commercial Area Enhancement Plan and the Housing Inventory.

Fulton's Commercial Area Enhancement Plan and Housing Inventory helped the community get a better understanding of the community's assets and needs.

The two studies have helped clarify information about areas of concern in Fulton, with the ultimate goal of finding the best use for resources in the commercial corridor and neighborhood as its theme, notes Kim Chen, a professor at the Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Urban Planning.

The Housing Inventory, a database created by students at the VCU program, contains more than 1,000 properties in Fulton and includes information on ownership, current assessment, transfers, building materials and conditions, construction dates and architectural styles.

The inventory noted that improved landscaping in parks and transforming green areas or grassy areas into spaces for social gatherings are ideal for conveying a sense of community. The issue of Fulton being amid a food desert is also addressed, with suggestions for improvement, including growing community gardens to provide residents access to fresh produce.

The Commercial Area Enhancement Plan represents a collaboration of students, designers, residents, friends of the Greater Fulton area, and business owners seeking to inspire new ideas for dated, but still useful buildings and houses in the vibrant neighborhood.

The studies point out a need for more outdoor furniture along Fulton, including benches, trash receptacles, bicycle racks, planters or pots, tree wells, edging, and picnic tables, as well as increased pedestrian lighting and more signage visible throughout the business corridor, especially at several busy intersections. The Housing Inventory study also suggests connecting Fulton to the James River and filling vacant homes with new tenants.

Meet Fulton’s business owners

Fulton’s Economic Development Work Team took the findings from the Enhancement Plan and Housing Inventory and presented them during an energetic Business Association Meeting in early February.

In a meeting at the Neighborhood Resource Center in February, local business owners got behind a plan for beautification.

Held at the Neighborhood Resource Center—a community-based nonprofit in Fulton that works on community organizing, education, culture, employment training and community health—a dozen or so business owners were in attendance, from the owner of a janitorial supply company in the neighborhood to the manager of the local branch of Bank of America.

“This is probably the largest turnout we’ve had in several years,” Gillie said. “I think it’s indicative of the business owners in the area becoming more interested and becoming more engaged. I think it proves that people are looking for solutions. Now the business association and LISC and the economic development committee are all starting to become one cohesive tool to further our efforts to improve the community.”

During the meeting, many of the owners discussed less-than-positive issues, such as loitering. Gillie, who also owns Power Equipment Company, stressed that such issues make neighborhood beautification projects essential to attracting businesses in Fulton.

Sarah Krumbein of Fulton Hill Properties, a real estate development company, said she wanted to make Fulton stand out in a way that “when you arrive in this commercial corridor, you know where you are.” She reiterated the need for more visual signage and the need for a “vibrant and active streetscape.”

Veronica Jemmott, senior program officer for the Virginia LISC office, pointed to the importance of everyone being a full participant in the business corridor’s revitalization. “We don’t want to do the beautification process for businesses,” she said. “We want to do it with businesses. 

Arts in the Alley returns to Fulton

In addition to aesthetic and safety enhancements, Fulton is focused on cultural events. On April 14-15, Arts in the Alley returned to Fulton to continue the community’s wave of new beginnings launched last October, when more than 100 volunteers and artists helped transform 16 murals in outdoor art exhibits.

Painting a mural at the Art in the Alley event in April.

DJ Glisson

“Greater Fulton is now abuzz with excitement about when the next mural project will begin,” said Jason Sawyer, a community organizer, at the October event. “Business owners are beaming with gratitude and thanks for what Arts in the Alley has done in partnership with Greater Fulton's Future.”

Jeanine Guidry, executive director of Arts in the Alley, presented pictures of a gradual two-day painting process at the February Community Work Team meeting. Residents viewed all of the fixing, cleaning, painting, scraping and priming that went into the murals.

Writing about the event in a blog post after the event in April, Guidry noted that a typical Arts in the Alley event, which have been held in a number of communities in Richmond and elsewhere, has between 75 and 100 volunteers. This time, she said, more than 325 volunteered.

“It was a fantastic weekend, and we got a ton of work done,” she said.

Clearly, the enthusiasm for revitalizing Fulton has more than a little momentum.

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The work in Fulton is proceeding without Mary Lou Decossaux, former executive director of the Neighborhood Resource Center. Decossaux passed away this winter. Under her leadership, the NRC became a focal point for much of the activity and growth to occur in Fulton in recent years.

Moving forward, the Greater Fulton’s Future Initiative Community Work Teams are determined to preserve Decossaux’s legacy by using it as further motivation for the neighborhood’s revitalization efforts. 

Posted in Implementing, Arts & Culture, Commercial and Economic Development, Richmond, VA

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