Historic and high tech are not often mentioned in the same breath – that is, unless you’re visiting Ronceverte’s Eco-District. Here, solar photovoltaic (PV) panels and geothermal projects are part of an award-winning business strategy for community revitalization.
“Sally, Sharon and I own three of the most visible buildings in town. They’re the first building you see as you enter or leave the town.” Main Street Program Manager Doug Hylton said, referring to Sally Baker of the Main Street Economic Restructuring Committee and Sharon Schaefer of the Promotion Committee. Then, Hylton ruefully added, “They’re also the biggest eye sores in town! So, we have to do them right. Built in the 1880s, they represent a key to our revitalization!”
Hylton, Baker and Schaefer are entrepreneurs, investing in their own buildings and renovations. By doing so, they’re also helping to shape a progressive direction for redevelopment of downtown. There is keen business logic behind the developers’ green plans. Making the buildings as energy efficient as possible helps them save money as owners and landlords, but it also serves as a marketing tool to promote the Ronceverte.
Ronceverte’s Main Street is evolving into
an eco district.
“As we retrofit the buildings, we’re trying to mesh both historic preservation and energy efficiency requirements. We want our buildings to have that 1880s character, but the new construction must serve the modern technology and comfort needs of the tenants and businesses we want to bring to town,” Hylton said.
“Solar panels aren’t an issue with historic renovation, as long as they can’t be seen from the street,” Baker added. “We have to devise a way to install the panels so they can’t be seen. We need to be open to more types of design. It may require more thought, more networking and more paperwork – but energy efficiency and historic renovation do go together pretty well.”
Hylton picked up Baker’s thought, “Keep in mind that these old buildings already are 70 percent more energy efficient than many new buildings because of the solid way they were constructed years ago. We’re trying to enhance that. In our cases, the buildings’ windows were so old that you couldn’t repair them. It became an opportunity to install double-paned windows, put in good-quality insulation and add new heating and cooling units with high SEER ratings.”
The green/historic approach helped Baker, Schaefer and Hylton qualify for a variety of grants and financing. The buildings already were part of Ronceverte’s historic district, so they took advantage of historic preservation tax credits. Then, they applied for two of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s energy grants – one for energy efficiency and a separate grant for renewable energy.
Accessing these funds is helping Baker, Schaefer and Hylton realize their own entrepreneurial dreams, as well. Baker and Schaefer plan to operate WV ReUsers in Ronceverte, which will re-use building supplies to keep them out of the landfill. In the meantime, a florist has moved into their first newly-renovated space.
Hylton plans to open a 1950s-style soda fountain and deli in his new green building: The Ronceverte Ice Creamery and Deli. The interior will be turquoise, beige and chrome, with old posters and a vintage jukebox. Hylton wants to make his own ice cream. “I’ve taken classes and know the chemistry of making ice cream. I’d like to process my own milk, possibly using the solar panels to pasteurize the raw milk to make the ice cream on site.”
“Green is good for business,” Baker said. “The greener we can make our properties and the town the more attractive they will be for business.
An Innovation Award helps Ronceverte’s Eco-district Grow
Ronceverte’s eco efforts already are being noticed. This May, Hylton, Baker and Schaefer from the Ronceverte Main Street Organization Committee won the 2010 Governor’s Main Street and On Trac Community Award for Innovation, along with a $15,000 award to advance their eco-district plans.
The three property owners proposed working with the city to create an overall plan that encompasses historic preservation, energy efficiency and sustainability of our buildings, while promoting rain gardens, geothermal heating and cooling systems, solar PV panels, and energy from wind and water.
The plan calls for three phases. First, to bring in experts to the community who understand renewable energy, greening of downtowns, rain gardens and other concepts associated with the eco-district concept. Second, the award will pay for the three to attend an eco-district conference in Portland, Or., where this concept has been implemented in an urban setting. Third, once the plan is completed, Ronceverte will hold community education meetings to discuss how other Main Street investors and entrepreneurs can approach the same type of projects for their buildings and communities.
As part of the plan for developing an eco-district, the trio want to partner with the town and the other businesses in collaborative, win-win ventures. For instance, Baker explained that by using net metering, she could put any extra energy from her solar panels back into the power grid – or use it to power a city streetlight on her corner. They’re also exploring putting in geothermal wells under the city’s parking lots that face the commercial district of downtown and then piping the ground-cooled air directly to the buildings. They envision building energy-efficient homes on vacant lots to bring foot traffic and residents to Main Street, as well.
Rebuilding our town, Preserving our history
Since 1872, Ronceverte’s history was built on lumber, railroads and being the commercial district of Greenbrier County. Everyone came to Ronceverte to shop until the1970s, when the completion of interstate five miles to the north drew businesses away from downtown.
During the last 10 years, Ronceverte has been trying to turn the town around through careful planning.
In 2005, the city entered the national Main Street program. Soon after, the USDA approached Ronceverte with a Rural Business Enterprise grant to fund the purchase and renovation of three downtown buildings. These became six new retail spaces, plus apartment spaces. The project led to private investment and a second Rural Business Enterprise grant. Now, Ronceverte is in the middle of a $200,000 EPA brownfields study to remediate a downtown industrial area and bring it into the overall redevelopment plan.
“Fifteen new businesses have opened since Ronceverte became a Main Street. We’ve always done the work as high-quality as we can – always thinking ahead to attracting future investment,” said Hylton. “Also, everything we did, we made sure it was in the newspaper and that people knew what we were doing. We want to be a model for other small communities.”
Hylton calls Ronceverte a town as unique as its name.
“We are a special little community. We’re on the river. We have a recreation trail and the largest park in the area. We’re a recreation town. We’ve got a great B&B, The Edgerton Inn. We have a well-known fabric store that pulls people into the town. We have a hardware store that’s been in continuous operation since 1904, which has all of the unique items that you can’t find anywhere else.
“With our Eco-district we want to offer something that’s unique – something that’s different. We want to build on our heritage and do something modern and progressive.”