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How a Virginia city turned things around and attracted businesses to its downtown

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Danville, Va., is the latest city working to revitalize its downtown. A lot of big cities have recovered in the last 25 years as old center cities refilled with global businesses and hipsters and so forth. For smaller cities, the results have been mixed, with some of them quite lively and others less so. Danville is an older city of just over 40,000 people with old industries - tobacco and textiles. Diana Schwartz, of a local group called the River District Association, says the city declined when those industries did.

DIANA SCHWARTZ: Roads and sidewalks and buildings began to crumble, quite frankly, you know, as people began to move out of the downtown and move their businesses out of the downtown.

INSKEEP: Danville began to turn things around in 2017 with simple fixes.

SCHWARTZ: Things like sidewalk repair, road repair, plumbing, sewer, internet, utilities - things that may not seem quite so sexy, but these are very important things if you're going to begin to have investors look at your community seriously to begin development.

INSKEEP: Yes, you would like to know that the sewers are up to code. Next up was getting residents back.

SCHWARTZ: And so there was a conversion of many of our former tobacco warehouse buildings into beautiful and very affordable lofts in the downtown.

INSKEEP: Oh, I've seen this in a bunch of cities. Rochester, N.Y., now has office towers that are apartment buildings. The final piece here was attracting businesses such as Fashion Haus, owned by Kelly Cunningham.

KELLY CUNNINGHAM: Fashion Haus is a creative agency. Within the creative agency, we focus on model development.

INSKEEP: And Cunningham says the support she got from that organization, the River District Association, helped her succeed. And her small Black-owned business is helping Danville thrive again.

CUNNINGHAM: Small businesses now are not what they used to look like when I was growing up. There are so many different small businesses that can make a downtown complete.

INSKEEP: Now, what we're describing is an approach laid out by Main Street America which is a national organization. Danville is one of the winners of this year's Great American Main Street Award.

SCHWARTZ: Whether you be a town, a small town of any size, or even a larger city that has distinct commercial corridors, there is a way for the program to work for everyone, even if you only utilize certain bits and parts.

INSKEEP: And in that way, smaller cities are hoping to follow the revivals of the big ones. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.