Challenge of living downtown

Published 9:01 pm Tuesday, June 21, 2016

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    Those of us who do not live inside Smithfield’s Historic District — and that’s most of us — can’t fully appreciate the positives and negatives of doing so.

    The positives, first of all, include the pride of living in one of Virginia’s loveliest and best-preserved small towns. They also include a sense of neighborhood that doesn’t exist in many places today, as well as a feeling of pride that the vast majority of residents have for maintaining the historic buildings that make the community special.

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    Increasingly, though, living in the district is also becoming a challenge. The phenomenal success of efforts to promote tourism in Isle of Wight County has, by necessity, most directly affected the Smithfield Historic District simply because, by any measure, it is the county’s — and one of Virginia’s — most historically significant communities.

    And it is that success that is at times challenging — at times, I’m sure, even infuriating — to those who live within spitting distance of the Olden Days activities, in the midst of the parade lineup and in the path of a growing number of bicycle races, bicycle “tours,” foot races and other activities designed to bring people to town on weekends.


    For a long time, it was easier for the town to just push ahead with what event organizers wanted, but during the past couple of years, the number of interruptions of life in the district have increased to the point that people are beginning to become a bit more vocal.

    To its credit, the town is listening. This month, it issued large windshield hangers. They are brightly colored and declare vehicle owners to be a “Downtown Resident.”

    The theory is that when downtown residents are trying to get home from the grocery store, doctor’s office or their son’s swim meet during an event, somebody in authority is going to try and help them do so.

    The tags won’t help much during Olden Days if you live on Mason or Main Street because the streets will be blocked off, full of displays and definitely closed to traffic.

    Still, the tags should help some district residents some of the time and may help avoid confrontations and embarrassments that might occur if vehicles are not identified as truly local.

    The most important element in this is that the town, its Historic District residents and its business owners are communicating. That dialogue should always be a central part of the planning for events in the district. Residents and downtown business owners all have a stake in what’s happening here, and their concerns and suggestions should always be a part of the planning process. Those interests won’t always mesh. The level of activity that’s good for businesses can become the very source of irritation for neighboring residents.

    Whether their concerns are the same or at odds, the town needs to listen to both. And the ones most at risk of being left out of the conversation are the residents. That’s why the windshield tags are an important gesture.

    The homes of the Historic District are the most important part of the fabric, and those who live in and care for those homes play a roll 365 days of each year in making the district an increasingly popular destination for Virginians. Frankly, without these owner/caretakers, there wouldn’t be much to promote. Thus, it’s good that the town is recognizing their concerns.