When Lovettsville Mayor Elaine D. Walker was a little girl in the 1940s, she and her family would walk to the town's old German Reformed church on Sundays. There were store windows to look in on the way, especially her favorite, a hat shop.
In the decades since, many of those stores have closed and Lovettsville's tiny downtown has wilted. Route 287, which runs through the town, has become a major commuter thoroughfare, where traffic races south to Purcellville or north to Brunswick with its MARC rail station connecting the region to Washington.
These days, Walker said, she sometimes goes to Frederick or Leesburg on Sunday afternoons, gets an ice cream cone and listens to a concert. She always asks herself, "Why can't we have that same thing here in Lovettsville?"
Walker is hoping Lovettsville can return to its roots -- by building its way back into being a walkable small town.
This fall, a developer plans to break ground on a 55-acre project at Broad Way and Route 287 directly across from the town's historic district. The Town Center development will have 158 homes and an old-fashioned town square with a post office on one corner and possibly a new town hall on another. Nearby, a large, open green will be surrounded by small shops and restaurants. Plans call for rerouting the highway around the town square, forcing traffic to slow down.
Several other developments in all corners of town, including a retirement community and a park being built with county help, mean that Lovettsville's population of about 850 could almost double in the next several years, a sign that Loudoun's explosive growth is reaching even its most rural corners. Unlike some towns, Lovettsville, the county's northernmost, is taking the unusual step of welcoming the building.
Walker, who has been on the Town Council since 1980 and mayor since 1990, said it is an opportunity for the town to shape its own destiny. The Town Center development, for instance, came about only after the town changed planning documents that would have allowed a standard strip mall, with a large parking lot facing Route 287.
"It would have been 'new town' and 'old town,' " Walker said. "You would have crossed a highway to get there."
Instead, the new housing development will have no gates or noticeable entranceway but be melded directly onto streets laid out more than 100 years ago.
"We weren't trying to create a project or a standalone," said Richard D. Entsminger, vice president of Elm Street Development and project manager for the Town Center. "We were trying to fit into Lovettsville."
He said he hoped that as businesses moved into the 128,000 square feet of office space around the town square and green, residents would go out walking in the evenings and sit on benches with their children -- just like in Walker's youth. Bicycle trails and walkways are planned, too, in hopes of getting residents out of their cars.
"You can't totally re-create something like that. The world is a lot faster paced now," Entsminger said. "But certainly a lot of the quality-of-life elements, I think if you're careful you can add those in. . . . It's probably a pretty faithful re-creation of what it was like 30 or 40 years ago."
Many public hearings were held for the new projects, some of them well attended. Some skepticism remains about the viability of the vision.
"We moved out here for it to be quiet," said Harris McGarrah, who has lived in the area since 1976 and is historian for the town's Masonic Lodge. The Masons have operated out of the same brick building downtown for more than 100 years. "I guess if it did turn out to be some kind of town center with people around, that'd be nice, but I think those days are past," he said.
Entsminger said discussions are underway to bring a grocery store to town, an enticing prospect for residents who now must drive to Purcellville or Brunswick for basic needs.
"It looks pretty nice on paper. I'm kind of anxious to see it complete," said Robert Phillips, a resident since 1971, who said expanded shopping could help the town become more self-sufficient.
Massive change for the town is eased by having Walker as its advocate. She has lived only one of her 66 years outside Lovettsville -- a brief stay in Philadelphia with her husband, who was in the military. She was born in one house in town and grew up in another. She hopes to move into the retirement community that she helped bring to town.
When Walker remarked while giving a tour of the town recently that a historic black church and school has "been here as long as I can remember," it means something.
Entsminger said Walker's leadership has helped make the project happen, noting that without vision and coordination, similar ideas elsewhere have foundered.
Walker said her way is the town's only option, given the growth that's coming.
"It's a very small town," she said, "and we're hoping to keep it that way."