Two who are building change

Building for a downtown Renaissance

by Tyler McAvoy (’12)

Prior to the construction of the Valley Mall in 1977, downtown Harrisonburg was the place to be. Shops and large department stores lined Main Street and Court Square. Restaurants and businesses thrived, and a theater, complete with a huge lighted marque, was always showing the latest and greatest blockbuster hits.  Yet when the mall was built, things began to change rapidly, and businesses began to migrate out of downtown. When the businesses left, the people began to leave too, and throughout the 80’s and 90’s downtown Harrisonburg was only a memory of what it once was.

Barry Kelley ('83) and Andrew Forward ('86) (photo by Mike Miriello)

Yet, things have started to change.

A slew of new restaurants have opened up in recent years, each offering a different style of food.  Coffee shops and bars now stay open late and some provide  floor space where customers can cut a rug. Three different types of museums have opened their doors, featuring the world of local artists and craftsmen. A new theater regularly shows indie and art-house films to challenge your normal film-going conventions. Yearly holiday events attract thousands to Court Square, and there’s a bigger demand for housing in Downtown than there has been in years.

This change isn’t accidental, or some matter of luck. Much comes from the hard work of an organization of local businessmen and professionals who have banded together to restore downtown to its former glory. Focusing on attracting businesses to downtown, the Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance brainstormed the idea of getting parts of downtown designated “historical districts” meaning that whoever builds or develops a property in these places can get a federal tax credit, as a means to attract developers to the area. And it has worked. Tax breaks piqued the interest of more then one developer, including Barry Kelley (’83) and Andrew Forward (’86). Both members of HDR, Kelley and Forward have utilized this to their advantage. And the result has been to downtown Harrisonburg’s advantage.

Urban Exchange, part of Harrisonburg's future

Kelley and Forward have partnered together on several high profile projects, such as City Exchange and Urban Exchange, which have fundamentally changed the culture of Harrisonburg.  City Exchange, located in an old abandoned seed mill, is now a modern complex featuring a restaurant and fashionable flats, while still retaining the history of the building. For Urban Exchange, Kelley and Forward took an empty parking lot and turned it into a huge multi-level apartment building, complete with underground parking and outlets for electric cars, adding a sense of definition to Harrisonburg’s generally vague architectural design.

Future projects are in the pipeline too, including turning an old ice factory into a multi-use building with a focus on creating space for artists and designers. Kelley and Forward have been instrumental in Harrisonburg’s revitalization and, as ideas emerge, will continue to develop Harrisonburg into a cultural and societal center.

For the contributions these two JMU alumni have made to the rebirth of downtown Harrisonburg, the late John Noftsinger nominated them last year for Be the Change. He was right; It’s a good fit. So soon we’ll be adding Barry Kelley and Andrew Forward to our Be the Change website.

We will also keep track of what’s next for these two builders of change.

To read more about Urban Exchange, visit their website at


About James Madison University
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

4 Responses to Two who are building change

  1. Greenbriar says:

    Nicely written article … but if I hadn’t read (and re-read) it, I would be asking: did a college senior actually say “cut a rug?”


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