While investors and commercial developers are gobbling up giant chunks of land in and around historic Leesburg, town leaders and a private partnership are turning seven old buildings into a centerpiece of neighborhood rehabilitation and historic preservation.
Workers are scrambling to finish restoration and modernization of the buildings -- some of which have been moved to the site from other states -- on a two-block area facing Loudoun Street, just a few blocks from the center of Leesburg.
To be known as Market Station, the project is expected to generate hundreds of jobs. Developers and town leaders predict that shops and restaurants in the architecturally diverse project will become major tourist attractions while helping preserve the town's sophisticated, yet country, atmosphere.
What were once grain and dairy barns, freight depots and log buildings have been positioned between Harrison and Church streets.
"It all started as a community development block grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development," according to Martha Mason Semmes, director of planning, zoning and development for Leesburg.
A century ago, the Market Station area was the center of commercial activity for rural Loudoun, according to Barbara Kirkpatrick, marketing director for Market Station. The area, known to longtime Loudoun residents as The Wharf, was home to the freight station, mills and the marketplace where farmers sold their produce. "It was the scene of political discussion -- not a classy place, but the center of things," Kirkpatrick said.
Fire struck the area in the late 1800s, causing severe damage to many of the buildings. However, some were rebuilt, including McKimmey's Mill, which still was operating a feed business in the old mill just a few days before construction of the Market Station project began. Over the past eight decades, the area has deteriorated, and it was a prime candidate for rehabilitation through the community development grant program, officials said.
Developers hope to have the project finished by late fall. Construction crews are working seven days a week, according to Beckham W. Dickerson, architect and coowner of the development.
Dickerson and Bruce N. Brownell, president of Brownell Inc., a Leesburg-based building and development firm, are jointly developing the project.
The developers own the buildings, and the town owns the land. "They have a long-term lease with an option to buy," Semmes said.
"We knew the town was going to do a redevelopment project," Brownell said. McKimmey's Mill "was slated for demolition." Today that mill has been moved "about 300 feet" from its 1890 site to become the focal point of the Market Station project, providing multilevel spaces for restaurants and stores.
The building's giant beams are a foot thick. What were once 25-foot-deep grain bins bearing indentations made by the tons of grain that were dumped against their sides through the years are being converted into offices or other rooms. Huge grinding wheels now sit on the construction site waiting for a permanent place inside the project as a reminder of days past.
Dickerson and Brownell won the right to build Market Station in a design competition held by Leesburg. "We kind of got married on the project and have been fighting ever since," Dickerson said. That is because "a good architect wants it to look good and doesn't care what it costs," he explained.
Touring the construction site now would bring joy to anyone interested in old buildings, developers asserted. In addition to huge old beams, original building materials are being preserved everywhere possible, developers said. A large staircase leading to the top floor of one building was "really two staircases," Brownell said. He found them in a field in West Virginia and put them together to get the length and strength needed for the project, he said.
Market Square promoters are billing the project as the town's answer to Baltimore's Harborplace restoration project. But they concede that it is much smaller in scale. "We already have a good tourist business," Semmes said. "We see this as a wonderful attraction. In addition, several hundred jobs will be created."
Those jobs are a major part of the reason the project qualified originally as part of the federally funded community development block grant program, she explained.
"It was a comprehensive multiple-year project" that was to be completed in three years, but it has taken longer because of its complexity, she said.
Market Station is only one part of the total project. Nearby are new town houses, built by Brownell and Dickerson for low- and moderate-income residents, Semmes said. In addition, older homes in the area have been rehabilitated. She said that will give residents a better chance to hang onto their homes in spite of growing pressures for commericalization.
Developers and Semmes said the project is "a good example" of public and private partnerships.
While Dickerson and Brownell have been working on Market Station, another significant renovation project has been started on Route 15, south of Catoctin Circle near the Leesburg Bypass. Although town officials are not involved in the renovation of a 90-year-old Queen Anne-style mansion known as Waverly Mansion, Semmes said town officials are pleased with the project.