Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend
THE REVIVAL OF DOWNTOWN HOPEWELL
Area experiences growth, development after decades of stagnation
When Trish Honaker opened the doors to Wonder City Bakery for her grand opening in downtown Hopewell last month, a line of customers stretched down the block.
“We made over 1,000 doughnut holes and they all sold,” Honaker said recently at her East Broadway business. “We made over 300 cinnamon rolls, and those were gone.”
The turnout is cited as a point of local pride by officials in a city working to build momentum after decades of stagnation in its commercial heart. Signs of life are returning to storefronts that shuttered after shopping centers opened in the 1960s and 1970s, luring tenants and customers out of downtown.
Five or six years ago, 80% of the buildings downtown were empty, but the vacancy rate has dropped to 20 or 25%, with plans underway to fill some spots, said Charles E. Dane, an assistant city manager. Five years ago, he had to beg developers to consider building in the city. Now, he says, dozens have come to him.
“It’s starting to slide in the
“Revitalization is a process, not an event. It just takes time to build and get the people to start coming back.”
Evan Kaufman, the outgoing executive director of the Hopewell Downtown Partnership
other direction right now,” Dane said. “We used to have to chase people and say, ‘Come on, why don’t you open a business down here?’ We’re not chasing anybody [now]. Everybody is coming to us.”
Wonder City Bakery is one of 10 businesses that have opened in the 15-block area comprising downtown over the past year, said Evan Kaufman, the outgoing executive director of the Hopewell Downtown Partnership.
“The good thing is that the momentum has built, and it’s a lot more attractive for new business owners to come in because we do have several businesses celebrating their one-, two-, three-year anniversaries of being open,” Honaker said recently at her bakery in the heart of downtown. “So they can see that there is a market, there is a customer demand for these different niche businesses.”
The city has struggled for decades to bring life back to downtown. About one in five city residents live in poverty — nearly double the state average — according to U.S. Census estimates from 2013-2017. Hopewell’s median household income of $40,712 is roughly 60% of the state median.
Hopewell has invested $15 million on a variety of initiatives downtown, including the renovation and reopening of the Beacon Theatre, the opening of the Appomattox Regional Library, and streetscaping, according to the Hopewell Downtown Partnership, which markets the city as a business destination and organizes community events, including a farmers market and a barbecue festival to draw people downtown.
Now, hundreds of apartments are planned for a site next to the Appomattox Regional Library, which downtown boosters say will increase foot traffic for businesses.
Across the street from Wonder City Bakery is Guncotton Coffee and Gallery, a coffee shop and special events venue that opened in 2018 in a former Studebaker dealership with exposed brick walls and a tin ceiling.
Ginny Gum, Guncotton’s manager, used to look out across the street on vacant storefronts. Now, she sees Paddy’s Irish Pub and Haley’s Honey Meadery. The Skrimp Shack, a seafood restaurant, opened last year across from Haley’s. Farther down East Broadway is Room ESC, a new escape room venue where participants wend their way through locked rooms using clues and keys.
“Literally everything I can see out my window is brand-new, which is awesome,” Gum said. “Slowly but surely, people who have a reason to want to be downtown are finding more and more reasons to keep coming back.”
Kaufman, the partnership’s executive director, said Guncotton’s opening a couple of years ago was a “big win” in a strategy to achieve incremental victories.
“A lot of people told me Carytown 20 or 30 years ago was a place you didn’t want to go,” Kaufman said of the busy Richmond commercial district. “It takes time, I think. Revitalization is a process, not an event. It just takes time to build and get the people to start coming back.”
Kaufman said that over the years, some new businesses have faded out in the downtown, prompting skepticism on whether the revitalization efforts are worth it.
“But if you look at our record, for every business that didn’t make it, we’ve had four or five that did,” said Kaufman, credited by city officials as a driving force behind the area’s momentum.
He is leaving to take a job as executive director of the Southeast Fairfax Development Corporation.
Dane, who focuses on economic redevelopment in his city manager role, said the partnership is expected to soon announce who will be succeeding Kaufman at the partnership, a nonprofit that’s partially paid for with city funds.
Dane, a duck hunter whose cellphone made quacking sounds as it rang during a recent interview in his office, said a project to build hundreds of apartment units downtown began with a meeting he had with the developers at a Ducks Unlimited event at a Richmond restaurant several years ago.
At that event, he told the developers there was a piece of land downtown that he wanted them to see. That land, which used to be the site of Patrick Copeland Elementary School, has a view of the river through the trees. The apartments would overlook the entrance to the city’s Riverwalk, the new 1,700-footlong boardwalk that runs along the banks of the Appomattox River.
The city last month sold that 6-acre plot behind the Appomattox Regional Library for roughly $425,000 to the developers who are planning to build 180 market-rate apartments, a plaza, open spaces and an outdoor amphitheater at the site. The developers have an option to purchase a second parcel nearby, a gravel lot next to the library, where the plans call for an additional 120 apartments and a parking deck.
Dane expects rents would initially start at about $1,000 to $1,100 a month for a one-bedroom and that those monthly rents would rise by $100 to $200 over the course of the next few years. The assistant city manager said soldiers from nearby Fort Lee, retired empty nesters and younger millennials could end up renting the apartments.
Dane said the apartment project by W.E. Bowman Construction would fundamentally change the downtown by adding much-needed foot traffic for nearby businesses.
“It’s going to put a couple hundred rooftops here, people living right here that can walk a block over to the restaurants and the Beacon Theatre or to the shops we have,” Dane said. “For downtowns to really be sustainable, you really need rooftops. That’s what we were missing down here, and that’s coming.”
The apartment project, dubbed Francisco Landing, is named after Revolutionary War hero Peter Francisco, who is the great-greatgreat-grandfather of Chip and Ed Bowman, the developers who are leading the project. Chip Bowman said the size of the plot and its proximity to the water were key selling points for them. He also cited the city’s “historic downtown vibe” and nearby restaurants and fitness centers that would be within walking distance of the new apartment buildings.
“We’re looking to add what we think is the missing component, which is market-rate housing, to that community,” Chip Bowman said.
Dane said he thinks the units would rent, adding that other apartment communities just across the river in Chester do not come with the walkable amenities that downtown Hopewell has.
He noted that just down the street from the library, a 68-unit apartment building that provides “workforce housing” is already full just months after opening in October. About 90% of the units are rented by people who meet annual income limits, such as $30,000 to $44,000 for a one-person household, Dane said. The other 10% are occupied by people who receive housing vouchers, Dane said.
Hopewell has had its own history with boom and bust cycles. The city’s population surged from 750 to 40,000 during World War I after DuPont opened a gunpowder and guncotton plant in the area, Dane said. He added that after the war, the population dropped to about 20,000 and has hovered there since.
Dane said downtown is on the cusp of another boom.
Not everyone interviewed recently thinks the city’s downtown is truly on a track toward revitalization.
Samuel Thompson, who owns a business on East Broadway selling new clothes, shoes and other merchandise he gets in liquidation sales from big-box stores, is skeptical that the new businesses sprouting up have staying power.
Thompson said the new stores are selling a product that’s not affordable in a city where many people are low-income residents.
“They will eventually go right out of business when the newness wears off, the novelty,” Thompson said.
But Deneb Leake, who owns the Fast Katz Barber Shop on East Broadway, is encouraged by the new businesses that have opened up around his shop in the Butterworth building. Leake said the downtown was pretty empty five years ago when he opened in a smaller space. He has since moved to a larger spot two doors down to handle his growing business, which has gained new customers each week.
“The foot traffic has gotten better because we are just opening up more [businesses],” Leake said.
Downtown business owners said challenges remain in keeping the business uptick going. They note the scarcity of parking spaces for customers on East Broadway. Leake, the barbershop owner, said the downtown could use more awareness about the businesses that have opened there, adding that sometimes customers still come in to his business and remark they weren’t aware the barbershop was there.
Leake said inaccurate perceptions about crime downtown continue to be a challenge.
The city, which was jolted by a spate of shootings over the past several months, has relatively little crime in the downtown area itself, said Dane, the assistant city manager. Crime statistics gleaned from the LexisNexis Community Crime Map show that in the past year, there were about two dozen property crimes — such as thefts and burglaries — but no violent crimes reported in an area that runs east from City Hall on North Main Street to Kippax Street.
Honaker, a former legal analyst at a Richmond law firm, said family ties drew her to the city. A lower cost of living from Richmond was also a draw.
“I think one of the challenges is being confident in the fact that that momentum can keep building because historically at least for the last 10, 15 years Hopewell hasn’t been the next Richmond,” Honaker said. “People haven’t wanted to intentionally move here to open businesses. They are unsure about the customer demand.
“We know that some of the buildings need some work. Some of them are dilapidated, have been vacant for a long time. So the challenge is really believing in the potential of the downtown as a community and as business owners.”