Column- Historic district’s makeover was a remarkable feat

Published 7:58 pm Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Smithfield’s hugely successful beautification projects on Main Street and, later, Church Street together gave the town’s Historic District a “curb appeal” that is the envy of towns across Virginia and beyond.

Mistakes were made in all three projects that in some instances added to their cost and in others prevented utility relocation that would have been the icing on the cake. Those mistakes are best left in the past, because the end product of all three projects has proven itself to have been a very good investment by the town.

The work, which was known as the Downtown Revitalization Project, was done in three phases. The first was a complete rework of the section of Main Street between Church and Institute streets, completed 30 years ago, in 1993. The second was the Wharf Hill and 300 block sections of Main, and the third was improvements along Church Street from the Cypress Creek Bridge to the Smithfield Center.

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The work wasn’t inexpensive. Several million dollars went into constructing brick sidewalks, burying utilities and installing lighting that today collectively enhance the overall appearance of the district. Remarkably, a significant portion of that money came from private sources. Joseph W. Luter III provided the initial stimulus with a matching grant of $200,000, specifying that the match had to come from private sources.

A nonprofit known as Historic Smithfield was formed to plan the project and raise the funds. Within two months, residents of the town and county had stepped up and made private donations that matched the grant and even surpassed it.

You would look far and wide today to find another community in which utilities were buried and brick sidewalks laid with funds voluntarily donated by longtime residents, some of whom had moved away years earlier, but it happened here. People who loved the town were determined to preserve it.

Mr. Luter and his company, Smithfield Foods, continued supporting the work with additional funds that went into Phase Two and the Church Street project, which was planned and executed separately.

The work wasn’t without controversy. Some members of the Town Council were reluctant to begin the work, knowing that the town would ultimately have to underwrite a portion of it and maintain the streetscape long afterward. A split Town Council voted to initiate the first phase, but the improvements became so popular that later additions were more readily accepted.

Smithfield’s willingness to undertake such extensive streetscape projects, at considerable local expense, quite probably reinforced Mr. Luter’s determination that he would bring Smithfield Foods’ headquarters back to his hometown and build the extensive company compound that has since been a prominent feature of the Pagan River waterfront.

The projects also led to eventual construction of The Smithfield Center, which has become a town treasure, and the Smithfield Little Theatre, one of the finest in the region.

The first project on Main Street was envisioned by its organizers as a way of preserving the town they loved. If it happened to generate business opportunity, that would be a bonus, but the driving force was preservation of something they loved.

They underestimated the potential. Before the first backhoe began work on the street, several property owners had announced plans to renovate their storefronts to take advantage of the “new look” that the project promised. Up and down the street, property was quickly renovated and the path laid for a new business era.

The streetscape projects and the investments made by property owners, coupled with the decision by Mr. Luter to bring Smithfield Foods and its well-paid staff to town, have paid dividends for Smithfield that were unimaginable in 1990 when the initial work was being planned.

There were times, during the 1980s, when — as an old country saying goes — you could fire a shotgun down Main Street without hitting anyone. That certainly is not the case today. A steady stream of tourists comes to town rain or shine. They, coupled with local business workers, including many from Smithfield Foods, as well as local residents, keep the town’s shops and restaurants busy.

Main Street isn’t what we old timers remember and, frankly, miss. There are no longer drugstores, hardware stores or very many other “local needs” businesses along the street. Nevertheless, the Historic District is alive and doing quite well thanks to the investments made by numerous people and the town three decades ago.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is