Although an enclosed mall with 50 stores recently opened nearby, the old Main Street downtown of this Shenandoah Valley business center is alive and challenging the competition with new street landscaping, reasonable metered parking in two decks and a tradition of attracting shoppers for nearly two centuries.
"But it's not easy to change people's habits and get them to use a modern parking facility only one or two blocks from most stores," said Betty Curry, a realty sales associate who came to Harrisonburg four years ago from San Diego. She pointed out that three hours of parking costs only 25 cents.
On a recent sunny weekday morning, Main Street and the courthouse square area were moderately vibrant for a town of 21,000. Two of the pedestrians were Joseph and Pauline Becker from Fair Haven, N.J. -- gathering Chamber of Commerce information because they are considering moving to Harrisonburg after Joe retires in two years.
"We've been visiting relatives in this area for years and love the mountains, the cleanliness and the easy living pace," said Joe Becker. "It's really pleasant to shop in this convenient downtown area."
Betty Nardi, who raised six children in Harrisonburg, said she and soon-to-retire husband Frank have no plans to give up the brick home they have occupied for 30 years. "We're native Pennsylvanians, and we've grown to love this town and the valley life . . . see the gorgeous turning leaves."
Harrisonburg's attractions include a growth economy, a fertile farming area, a hospital, a nearby airport, a classy Sheraton, rail transportation, new industries, a booming poultry processing industry (Rockingham County bills itself as the turkey-growing capital of the world.), TV and radio stations, a daily newspaper and varied outdoor recreation opportunities.
There's no doubt fast-growing James Madison University, which has doubled its enrollment to 8,000 in a decade, it the new pace-setter. With a facility and staff of more than 1,100, state-aided JMU has a $20 million payroll. It has added a new tone with its growing in-town campus. A community college and two small liberal arts colleges complete the higher education community.
"No doubt about it, JMU is the biggest home builder here," said Mark Martin, a seasoned newcomer who heads the valley's home builder association.
"Just look at those new dormitories," he pointed out. "And now there's a new athletic center under way. Add that to the newly opened $8-million R.R. Donnelly printing plant with 350 jobs and you can see why we're building private homes here at the rate of nearly 300 a year. That may be peanuts up in Washington, but it's good here. We just need more buildable lots."
In downtown there's concern about the sprawling Valley Mall that attracted the town's biggest department store, Leggett's, and thus left a three-story building vacant. Betty Curry, whose heart is in downtown, acknowledged that the new mall is "the valley's new community center. You see almost everyone there on Friday night. It's a happening for us."
William Dickerson, manager of two Schewel furniture stores (one still in downtown and another across from the mall), said the Leggett move hurt downtown but that business has been "picking up" in recent months. We've still got the tradition, the banks and the lawyers. We're hoping that the Leggett building will be remodeled into office space that could be used."
Visitors find no honky-tonk atmosphere in downtown Harrisonburg. It has a variety of stores, an expanding restaurant and a place called the Elbow Room, where music fans and young beer drinkers gather. But saloons are less than profligate in the valley due to what old-timers describe as an abiding Mennonite influence.
Harrisonburg got another lift last week with the opening of a large Best Products catalogue store on Rte. 33 east of downtown, where the mall and other businesses have settled in recent years. The Merck plant at Elkton is still a major economic base in the valley, which has been anticipating the move of a Coor's brewery here for several years.
Terry Taylor, who runs the Chamber of Commerce, said downtown still needs more parking. He also is optimistic about the much-debated Coors' entry that awaits environmental approval.
In addition to more downtown parking, Main Street also needs some confidence among specialty merchants who could open shops that would enlarge the shopping spectrum for valley shoppers.Meanwhile, Harrisonburgers munch juicy red apples and count their money and their small town blessings.