Photo by Holly Tonini
One of William Prince’s goals is to make sure that those of us who already live in Washington really get to know and take advantage of what’s in our own backyard.
“That’s the story we don’t hear all the time,” he says. “We hear the big-city activity, but when we look around at what’s in our backyard and nearby, there’s lots more to see and do than you think initially. It’s just taking the time to get to know and explore your neighboring communities.”
Prince, the new Main Street manager for the Washington Business District Authority, spent the past several years in New Orleans studying community development and preservation. With historic architecture ranging from French Quarter shotgun houses to grandiose mansions in the Garden District, it was the perfect place to earn his master’s of preservation studies.
“There’s really no place like it, and it was just a great living laboratory and place to learn about preservation and neighborhood development and cultural heritage,” Prince says.
He’s still working on his thesis, but now the 31-year-old is applying what he learned to help revitalize downtown Washington.
WBDA’s mission is to preserve, improve, promote and enhance the downtown business district. That area covers a 14-block radius from Walnut to the train tracks on South Main Street and east to west from College to Franklin streets.
So how did a guy from Elizabeth, Pa., who was studying at Tulane University wind up working to energize downtown Washington? “I was looking at positions and options in New Orleans, but was also interested in coming back here,” Prince explains. “My interest in preservation has always been Main Street. I’ve done volunteer work in revitalization with organizations around bringing back Main Streets – and that’s my interest. When I saw this opportunity, it was a great fit.”
Prince says his job is to employ the “Main Street” approach to revitalize the downtown through events, promotion and marketing both businesses and the community itself. He’s also tasked with helping to attract and retain businesses. He says his role is “to create a vibrant downtown where people want to visit, work and live and to create a sense of community and pride in the greater Washington area.”
One key resource in that effort is using the downtown’s historic architecture and buildings. “With my background in preservation, we can see how we can use these historic buildings to reimagine and reinvent what Washington wants to be,” Prince says. “By attracting new business or uses, they can play a role in attracting new people to the area.”
One of his goals is to develop a National Register Historic District. “This would open opportunities for both grants and tax credits so that building owners and investors would be interested in finding ways to develop the properties for new uses, but retain the historic architecture and character.”
He also sees the area’s rich history, including the Whiskey Rebellion, as a tool that businesses can use to play off and attract visitors and plan events.
In addition to sponsoring the city’s “First Friday” events that are hosted by Observe-Reporter, Main Street also works with the farmers market and hosts the city’s annual Christmas parade. Prince is also working to unite downtown business owners. “We are starting up a series of merchants meetings and Main Street mixers as a way for businesses and downtown stakeholders to meet their neighbors and get know each other – to talk about trends and things they want to try in the downtown, and to collaborate and help each other out to cross-promote and send customers down the street.”
He also wants to explore more public art opportunities and make the gateways into Washington more attractive. “Whether that’s the signage or the façade grants, we’re going to make it a more welcoming downtown, so people know they’ve entered the community.”
Urban renewal and business growth in many communities, including Washington, has been spurred by the spirits industry. With Washington’s addition of a winery, a brewery and two distilleries, Prince wants to take the next step to expand that experience for customers. “We’re talking with business owners about what some next steps would be for additional retail and shops,” he says. “To visit the distilleries, brewery and winery, but then go shop at some art galleries, those are things that have really been of interest lately and really create that whole experience – whether it’s dining, lodging or really to spend time and experience the historic elements of downtown Washington.”
Those experiences may soon include events meant to spread the word about what is already in downtown Washington. “One of things I hope to do is not so much new events, but more retail-oriented promotions, such as a passport or a ladies night of shopping,” he says. “Activities to get to know the other businesses and see what’s available through town.”
The Mon Valley native started his new job in June and is excited to be back home. “I’m very proud to be from the Mon Valley and I still do volunteer work there,” he says. “It’s exciting to see Pittsburgh make national headlines, but it’s also exciting to see some of these other small towns getting recognized.”