What’s Changed About Harrisonburg?

Brent Finnegan -- October 20th, 2010

This is the fourth installment in a Q&A series with Harrisonburg City Council candidates.

hburgnews.com reader Ross asks, “What’s one thing that’s changed about Harrisonburg that you wish hadn’t?”

Photo of Liberty Street before construction of the jail. Uploaded by Flickr user Marj1223.

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Joe Fitzgerald: The biggest change for the city that I wish hadn’t happened is the purchase of the local poultry companies by firms in the upper Midwest. That much change in control of the local economy is rarely for the good. But it’s a sign of how much and how quickly the city has grown. The change moved a lot of middle-level jobs to the Midwest. And now decisions about the Valley’s employment, industry and water supply are being made elsewhere. Plus there’s no longer a poultry parade. The changes affect the entire Valley, but are centered here because Harrisonburg is the capital of the Shenandoah Valley. Mostly, they affect the big picture of the Valley. Our heritage is in agriculture, but our future won’t be.

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Charlie Chenault: The long term, but temporary demise of downtown. In the late seventies and early eighties, downtown began its retreat with the construction of Valley Mall and the out properties that followed. Fortunately, downtown is coming back and will be better than ever. It certainly is from a restaurant and entertainment standpoint. Also, many more people live downtown now than before. We need to continue to recruit more retail and incubator types of businesses to make downtown full service and complete phases II and III of streetscape. Congratulations to the merchants, the City, Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance and those who live and shop downtown for making this happen. This has been a true collaboration.

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Carolyn Frank: By the time you reach my age you have experienced a lot of change. I’ve lived in Harrisonburg 30 years in 3 different parts of town. Change came to each area. Change comes, we love some of it, and we adjust to the rest. I’ve enjoyed my city in the good old days, and I’m really enjoying it now. I love my walks though the city, dining at local restaurants, shopping our many thrift store and buying good food at the Farmer’s Market. I did hate to see our high school move to the west edge of town, but JMU has done a splendid job with the facilities and Memorial Stadium. It was nice living close to RMH, especially when I had family members there; but the new hospital is wonderful and they now have room to grow. The old hospital is the perfect site for JMU to expand. Probably the one thing that most people would complain about is the stoplights and traffic. But, come May we even get a break from the traffic, until around August 20.

I really want to be a council person who plans for the future, while addressing the needs of today. I am thankful for the forward thinking leadership that we have had in the past. Long before we needed it, they planned and developed Switzer Dam for a water supply; same with our park system. They purchased land long before it was needed with the anticipation of growth. That planning gave us land to develop soccer fields on Smithland Road. I could name many more instances were long-range planning has given us opportunities for today.

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Ted Byrd: The one thing that has changed in Harrisonburg that I wish had not, would be the evolution of Downtown Harrisonburg. Growing up, Downtown was where you went to shop, eat, and take a date to see a movie. With the opening of the Valley Mall, which was originally in Rockingham County, economic forces began to change the landscape of Downtown. I am committed to making Downtown a destination stop for Valley residents. Currently, we have encouraged projects that allow for more people to work and live Downtown, as well as projects that bring people to shop and visit (Farmers Market Pavilion, Phase I Streetscape, The Arts Council of the Valley, and The Children’s Museum). The City’s partnership with Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance has paid amazing dividends and I look forward to continuing to partner on projects that bring back the Main Street sense of community that we once had.

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Greg Coffman: Harrisonburg used to be known as “The City With The Planned Future.” This motto was dropped in the 80’s as I recall. Unfortunately, the lack of emphasis on planning has led to neighborhood security issues, negative impacts on property values, traffic concerns, and urban sprawl. With the city approaching build-out, there will be more pressure in the near future to rezone existing properties that may or may not be compatible to the surrounding neighborhoods. I’ve pledged to protect neighborhoods from unwanted rezoning that will negatively impact property values and lifestyles.

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Sal Romero: I am very content with the changes Harrisonburg has undergone in last twenty years since I came to the city both culturally and structurally. There is not one thing that has changed that I wish it hadn’t. I have seen how residential and commercial areas have developed across the city. The changes in demographics over the last two decades have also changed the appearance of Harrisonburg. I believe our city has a lot to offer to its citizens for its relative size. As city council member, I will support smart growth to our city that best fit the needs of the residents.

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All responses are listed unedited, in the order we received them.

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23 Responses to “What’s Changed About Harrisonburg?”

  1. Daniel says:

    Funny to see Carolyn talk about how she enjoys seeing JMU expand. But wasn’t it just a few years ago she was joined at Kenny Kyger’s hip, pushing out Larry Rogers, because of JMU’s growth?

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  2. I think the biggest loss for downtown was the demolition of the Virginia Theater. That’s one thing Harrisonburg lost that it will never get back, regardless of how successful the renaissance is.

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    • Bazrik says:

      Well said, Brent. But hey – it’s a good thing Hburg passed on that whole “Shakespeare Center” thing. That idea never really took off in Staunton, from what I’ve heard… :)

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  3. charles chenault says:

    Brent – I saw my first (and only) x-rated movie at the Virginia Theater – “To Sir With Love.” I still feel guilty about it. And yes – we did sneak in through the alley door.

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    • The Sidney Poitier movie? Was not aware that was rated X. Fairly tame by today’s standards.

      Sadly, I never saw anything there. I remember walking by it as a kid — it looked abandoned, I’m not sure how long it had been closed at that point in the late 80s — and always wanted to go inside. I think Gus bulldozed it shortly after that. Not sure what year that was.

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      • JGFitzgerald says:

        The theatre was razed in the early 90s, while I was at the DNR. I’ll never forget Allen Litten’s voice when he called to tell me about it. Stunned and horror-struck, but he was still shooting pictures.

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      • MF says:

        It was empty for most of my child hood. They bulldozed the actually theatre part a year or so before they actually took down the façade.

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    • Brooke says:

      “To Sir with Love” was X-rated? I don’t remember that being x-rated. I watched that with my parents! LOL

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  4. charles chenault says:

    Brooke and Brent – I am older than I look I hope and this was the Catholic rating guide that came out every Friday I think. My mom had to review it before she let us go to the movies.

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  5. jeff says:

    I liked the Virginia Theater, but then again at that time in the late 70s I was renting an unfinished basement room while I went to college, so my perspective was a little skewed. As I recall it was in terrible shape inside… would have taken a huge investment just to bring it up to neutral.

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  6. Ross says:

    Wasn’t there another theater downtown that burned? Where was that one located. Boy, downtown must have been a great place. Sorry I missed it.

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  7. Terry says:

    The Va theater rocked. I always wanted to watch from the balcony. Funny thing is it was never open at any time I ever watched a movie there. I remember Star wars and Smokey and the bandit playing there for like 50 weeks consecutively. I recall the lines wrapping back around to almost Gitchells. LOL

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  8. charles chenault says:

    Ross – the State Theater was located next to the new Children’s Museum. My grandmother was the manager and expired in the fire in 1970. Downtown was a great place.
    Thanks – Charlie

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    • Hunter Woodard says:

      And do not forget the other theater across the street from the State Theater… the Strand (circa 1934). The Strand occupied the building that is now Clementines

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  9. Dany Fleming says:

    It’s an interesting lens we have in looking back in history. I remember going to the State and Virginia, raiding the candy jars at Hostetter’s Drug Store and getting a hot dog and milk shake at the Woolworth’s counter.

    A different lens might give a different perspective on the “good ol’ days” in downtown Harrisonburg. For example, the residents of Northside downtown were forcibly moved from their homes to make way for downtown “progress” and “development.” Not surprisingly, their homes were condemned and devalued by new property assessments just before the city offered them “market value” and new lots along Broad and Myrtle Streets.

    So, what’s changed? ….we’ve become a smarter and more caring city. We’re starting to plan more from a community perspective and a quality of life perspective. Folks pay attention to who our planners are now, so that they’re not just the people who gain financially. We have broader citizen input on planning. We actually have developers who really do hear that and think about longer-term, quality of life planning.

    As far as we might have to go, we’ve moved in a better direction with a City Council, Planning Commission and planning staff that’s no longer strictly a rubber stamp for short-term development interests. That’s the result of more engaged citizens. Hopefully, the next elections can continue and reinforce that trend.

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  10. MF says:

    Hate to post this off topic, but I was not sure where else to post it. Is anyone else aware there are two people trying to run against Goodlatte this cycle?

    Whig Party
    http://jeffvanke.com/

    Libertarian
    http://bainforcongress.org/

    Kind of crazy.

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    • Jason B says:

      Yes, I met Vanke at the Harrisonburg July 4th parade. Nice guy, and obviously smart, but Goodlatte has been around too long and has too many teats out for his constituents to suckle on, like many of those darned liberals do…hey, wait a minute…

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    • Thanh says:

      I saw that there is a Congressional debate sponsored by the Madison Debate Society. Both Vanke and Bain will be there, but it says on the event’s facebook page that Goodlatte has not responded to their invitation.

      Time: Tuesday, October 26 · 7:30pm – 9:00pm
      Location: Memorial Hall Auditorium

      This link might work: http://www.facebook.com/?tid=1659924139141&sk=messages#!/event.php?eid=157088267664144 (The event title is “Congressional Candidate Debate”.)

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  11. David Payne says:

    I loved going to the Virginia Theater, then spending what seemed like hours in Glen’s Fair Price. Did anyone else ever have to march down to Hickey’s Barber Shop to get their haircut? There used to be so many small and interesting shops downtown, back when JMU was still Madison College, I miss those days!

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  12. Mary Helen Purcell says:

    My father was the manager, for many years, of the Virginia Theater. It was originally an old opera house and had a performing stage. The box seats were wonderful although not open to the public. I was able to go through the whole place including the box seats and the downstairs behind the screen where the dressing rooms of old were. My father put on stage shows usually of western actors like Tex Ritter and Gabby Hayes. I always thought it was a special place and was heart broken to hear it was torn down. But as my mother always said when I lamented its demise, “Oh it would have been prohibitively expensive to save it. It was really in bad shape”. Unfortunately she was right.

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  13. Lisa says:

    Does anyone remember the name of the dress store downtown in the 80′s, I think it was near Jess’s.

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  14. Ed says:

    Lisa, not sure about the name of the dress shop near Jess’s but in the 50′s it was the Joanly Shop. My mother worked there in the 50′s. The only other name that comes to mind is Cato’s as I believe they were in that location after the Joanly Shop closed.

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