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Hampton, Virginia turns around its downtown; international attention, new investment result.

In 1982, when James Eason was elected mayor, the city of Hampton, Va. began a major makeover aimed at improving its image and reversing its declining commercial tax base.

The goal was to "revitalize decaying downtown Hampton and launch the city in a new direction," said Eason. The result is a downtown plan that has received international recognition and boasts several tourist attractions, increased commerce, greater tax revenues, new jobs, increased citizen pride and better overall quality of life.

A cross section of the community was gathered to create what became a "Downtown Roundtable' to design a plan for the city's renaissance.

Through the group, which represents businesses, residents and churches, a new vision for downtown Hampton emerged and has been unfolding during the past few years with remarkable results.

Before his downtown reconstruction erupted, the city's waterfront was lined with a debris-cluttered and bankrupt boat repair yard and a boarded up restaurant. Today, along a one-mile public waterfront promenade, the Radisson hotel stands boldly showing off its art deco style, next to a new visitor center, tourboat dock and luxury marina. The Radisson is doing so well that its occupancy is 16 percent higher that the region's competition.

A positive injection to the city's commercial base is Harbour Centre, a fully-leased, 14-story office tower which replaced a three-level office building. The Radisson and the Harbour Centre were constructed from public/private funding.

"Downtown business and city revenues have surged, the city is enjoying national attention as a desirable travel destination, community pride is strong and Hampton citizens gave high ratings to Hampton's quality of life in an annual citizen phone survey," said Mayor Eason. Hampton was awarded the 1993 Cities of Vision Award from the International Making Cities Livable Council, based in Carmel, Calif.

Until 1986, when it closed down, the Buckroe Beach Amusement park was local legend. The closing of the park left behind a favorite past time for kids--the Hampton Carousel. As part of the downtown revitalization, the carousel, with its hand-carved and hand-painted horses, was restored and moved to a new spot on the waterfront.

NASA, the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institute and the local Air Force and Army commands supplied additional steam to get downtown Hampton going.

In the 1700s Hampton was a central point for New World traders and pirates and during the civil war the ironclads Merrimac and Monitor exchanged cannon fire over what was a confederate stronghold. A new complex, featuring NASA and the Virginia Air and Space Museum, tells this story and many others including the history of the American air and space research and exploration, and the history of the region. The complex touts Virginia's only IMAX theatre. The new complex was designed by Mitchell/Giurgola architectural firm and replaced an old car dealership.

A big part of the vision and strategic plan for the city is a tracking system that measures growth. Each new project has a growth projection which is monitored by the city.

Projections for the new downtown were actually too low. Since 1990, city tax revenues from the Radisson and Harbour Centre have increased by $2.9 million over the buildings they replaced, 30 percent more riders went around the carousel than expected, about 20 percent more people than projected visited the Virginia Air and Space Center, and downtown business gross receipts are up 32 percent.

Hampton has been featured in local, national and international publications. The Washington Post called it "fashionable." High Point Enterprise said Hampton's "imaginations tend to soar above the ground." And Destinations Magazine said "Any tour operator would love to know the best place to go, stay and eat. Hampton ranks as one of the best yet-to-be discovered cities."

Hampton, population 133,000, has been praised for making such substantial changes in a short time considering its moderate population. With continuous miles of shoreline, the city took full advantage of the waterfront. At night it gleams with lights from new buildings and attractions. Architecture magazine featured the waterfront in its cover in September 1992. Architecture's feature headline appropriately describes the new downtown as "Hampton Takes Flight."

Today, the flight includes a growing fleet of boats and yachts at the new marina, luxury townhomes and condominiums responsible for a development boom, and commercial projects fueling more than $37.5 million in private investments--just in the last three years.

Visitors will find a diversity of things to do, with art galleries and art shops, public parks and scenic walkways, year-round cultural festivals and special events.

"Hampton has paid great attention to amenities, to pedestrians and to its waterfront. . . Hampton has done a good job of blending the traditions of the city with concern for the future of Hampton's children," according to the International Making Cities Livable Council. The blend of history and state-of-the art is evidenced in the opening of a library in a victorian-style building. Hampton Public Library attracts 300,000 visitors a year.
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Author:Baker, Denise
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Dec 6, 1993
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