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A little history can help shape the future.
Girard Borough is joining a growing list of Erie County municipalities that are building on their past to attract visitors and grow business.
Girard is developing a master plan on ways to use its history and other assets to help revitalize its downtown.
“We want to create a look and feel for downtown that people want so that they’re willing to visit, eat, do some shopping and see what we have to offer,” Girard Borough Manager Rob Stubenbort said.
“A good-looking downtown area in a small town is the face of the town. We want to be sure we’re seen at our best,” Stubenbort said.
Girard Borough also plans to seek Downtown Historic District designation from the National Register of Historic Places to help draw new business and visitors.
And that can help rejuvenate the town, said Wendy Naylor, of Naylor Wellman Historic Preservation Consulting, based near Cleveland. The firm worked with the Lawrence Park Historical Society to get a National Register listing of the township’s original commercial and residential district, including its iconic row houses, in 2018.
“What the National Register listing does is qualify income-producing buildings in the historic district for state and federal tax credits,” Naylor said. “The motivation behind the tax credits is to get those buildings back in use and get businesses in and generating tax revenues.”
One building rehabilitation sparks others, Naylor said.
“Once you get one building rehabilitation going downtown it’s contagious,” she said. “Others follow. It’s really fun to watch.”
The historical designation also drives tourism, Naylor said.
“You use that story that makes you unique to promote your town,” she said. “It becomes the basis for heritage tourism and just promoting the town as a wonderful historic community.”
Girard’s unique story includes that it once was the home of the Dan Rice Circus. Rice, who is credited with creating the Uncle Sam character, wintered his nationally known show in Girard in the mid-19th century.
That kind of historical promotion could help Girard, said Pat Harvey, a pharmacist at Girard Pharmacy.
“I think Waterford has done a really nice job with their downtown, and I’d like to see something similar to that here,” Harvey said. “We have a historic past here also. We didn’t have George Washington, but we had Dan Rice, and that could be almost as good.”
Rice also erected the nation’s first monument to Civil War dead, in Girard’s downtown.
Empty storefronts are Girard’s biggest challenge, Harvey said.
“We get plenty of traffic through town but we definitely need more businesses to get people in,” he said.
Downtown Girard Inc., a new nonprofit organization, is working with the borough to help revitalize the town’s Main Street commercial district.
Public meetings will also be held to gather community ideas, he said. Some events will be held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We invite everyone to participate in the upcoming surveys, discussions, and other chances to be part of the planning process. The more ideas and comments, the better,” Stubenbort said.