During the 1930s, Manassas merchants and residents would gather every morning at 10 at Cocke's Drug Store for a soda and a bit of news, recalls Manassas Mayor Edgar Rohr.
Those days of big cars and baggy suits were a time when the downtown was the focus of attention, when merchants had a "captive audience," said Rohr, 71, who 53 years ago opened a general store that is still in operation.
That era has given way to a time when many city residents may not even know there is a downtown Manassas. But officials are hoping that the city's recent selection for the Virginia Main Street program will spur a renaissance in downtown activity.
Under the program, which began in 1985, the state provides technical assistance to revitalize a municipality's downtown by concentrating on four areas:Organization -- building partnerships among bankers, merchants, chamber members, city officials and residents. Economic restructuring -- recruiting new business to diversify the business base, converting unused office space to offices and apartments and improving the competitiveness of merchants. Retail accounted for only 13 percent of downtown land use, according to a 1986 study by Historic Manassas, a nonprofit corporation formed to promote downtown using the Main Street approach. Promotion -- developing special events, festivals, graphic and media presentations to create an attractive downtown atmosphere. Design -- enhancing the appearance of all facets of the core business district.
Beginning Tuesday, city officials and staff will travel to Richmond to find out specifics of the state aid, which is administered by the Department of Housing and Community Development.
"The fact that there is an organized effort will be helpful," said Bob Lintom, who opened a teachers supply company on Center Street in August. "In the past, people have been trying to improve the situation on a hit-or-miss basis."
The program seeks to be a catalyst by weaving revitalization efforts into a coordinated plan. Several projects that could have positive spinoffs for the downtown already have been proposed, including a regional museum and inclusion of the city's historic district in the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places.
Many outsiders think of Manassas merely as the site of two major battles of the Civil War, but there is much more, said Eric Persson, executive director of Historic Manassas.
"It has one of the most intact turn-of-the-century commercial areas in the Northern Virginia area and the entire state," Persson said. "It is America feeling its oats. The railroad . . . America was growing up in the world."
Unlike downtowns in some small cities and towns, Manassas' is not desolate. Yet the core business district is not as thriving as it could be, some local people say.
"We get some new people," said David Balboni of Ashby Jewelers. "But a lot of our business is from people who have been in Manassas a long time."
Business people and city officials want the downtown to reap the benefits of being part of Virginia's fastest growing city. Manassas has about 20,500 residents whose average household income was $36,410 in 1985, according to the city's proposed Comprehensive Plan.
"We definitely had an identity crisis," said Beth MacDonald, a City Council member who operates Tudor Hall Interiors. "A lot of people didn't even know about downtown, and if they did know, they didn't know where it was. You've got so many new housing areas. A lot of these people may not have ever even been downtown."
MacDonald said that when she started her business five years ago, there was little downtown organization. But this decade has seen the formation of the Old Town Business Association and Historic Manassas. Businesses have spent more than $300,000 on renovations during the last year and a half, and by fall $1 million will have been spent, Persson said.
People who come downtown, where restaurants abound, would find a charm and ambiance unavailable in the malls and shopping centers off Rtes. 234 and 28, which have siphoned off customers from the downtown over the years, MacDonald said.
The good old days can return, city officials say. "Every Saturday, the farmers would come to town," Rohr said. "This was the shopping center."