May 30, 2013 6 Comments
In 1965, Harrisonburg, Va., for a small city, was a shopper’s paradise. The downtown featured large department stores, druggists, gift shops, jewelry stores, music shops, stationery stores, shoe stores, men’s clothing stores and dress shops, furniture stores, bookstores and three “five-and-dimes.” There were counters for lunching and movie theaters for entertainment — two of them, in fact. And much of the business done throughout the entire county was conducted in downtown Harrisonburg. It was a one-stop shopping venue.
All that changed in the 1970s when businesses began moving away from downtown. Many relocated to the newly-built Valley Mall, east of the city. It was part of a nationwide trend that hit Harrisonburg hard.
Leggett’s department store left. JC Penney left. The “five and dimes” and department stores closed or were repurposed. What had been a vital downtown began to see vacant store fronts and — of greatest concern — fewer people. The mall area was draining the life out of downtown.
Eddie Bumbaugh (’73) who had grown up in the area watched the decline. “My father owned a Buick dealership and I worked summers washing and reconditioning cars,” he says. He later earned his masters in social work at Virginia Commonwealth University, but home was always here in the valley.
In 2003, realizing not only the potential but the possibility of a revitalized downtown, Eddie and a group of citizens formed the Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance. He became the executive director.
“When the city decided that Eddie Bumbaugh was the person to lead the revitalization of downtown, it was the wisest decision that could have been made. Eddie is the guiding light,” Glenda Rooney, city resident and former assistant to the provost of academic affairs at JMU, says. “Eddie’s unceasing energy and strong passion for revitalizing Harrisonburg is contagious….It could not have been done without his leadership.”
In well planned and strategic moves, Eddie and HDR worked step-by-step to resuscitate Harrisonburg’s downtown. In the decade that followed, they turned a dying downtown into a vibrant urban center.
One of the biggest differences between the Harrisonburg of the 1970s and today’s Harrisonburg is people — who live there, shop there and meet there once again. According to the Jan/Feb 2013 MainStreetNow magazine, the Journal of the National Trust Main Street Center, the city had 150 houses units in 2003; today that number exceeds 500.
“By having more people living downtown, we could create a strong base for retail,” Eddie told MainStreet Now, which featured Harrisonburg’s renewal as a case study for developing a vital urban downtown. (To read the entire article, including the case study, click on the embedded link above; the case study begins on page 8.)
Eddie’s leadership was critical. Lisa Ha (’04,’10M), assistant director of marketing at JMU and former program manager for HDR, says: “People know him for his genuine commitment to our community and for the unassuming way he has been been bringing people together for the common good of Harrisonburg for more than 30 years. Everybody knows Eddie.”
A decade after it began, HDR’s success is apparent. Today’s city has a thriving and attractive downtown where success has followed success. The Explore More Discovery Museum (another grassroots effort), the public library, the Quilt Museum, art and music venues, restaurants, microbreweries, and a successful community theater all drive the new life of downtown Harrisonburg, as do events like Taste of Downtown, cycling events, film series, MACRoCk, Valley Fourth and First Fridays.
Significant credit goes to Eddie Bumbaugh’s leadership, which is why we’ll soon add him to our Be the Change website. Eddie defines what it means to be an enlightened and engaged citizen. He has been an agent of change in Harrisonburg — which is no longer the city of the 1960s and 70s.
It is so much better.