Making Bedford stronger

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By Clay Chastain


    Bedford is in the enviable position of being a wonderful place to live, but perhaps in need of a bit of rejuvenate tweaking to keep it so.
    Most of us love the lifestyle that Bedford offers, or else we would not choose to live here. But who of us would object if Bedford enjoyed more job opportunities, a more vibrant, bustling downtown, fewer vacant buildings, more things to do for its young people, and an overall stronger economy?
    Granted, we are now part of a larger global economy that is amid a downturn. In many respects, we are helpless in being swept along in that tide. For instance, the manufacturing base that Bedford once had may never fully return. And what can we do about the alarming rise in price of gas at the pump, or the negative impact felt here from the country’s ongoing housing crisis?
    Nevertheless, we are not without doable options to attract more economic prosperity to Bedford, as well as improve our citizens’ quality of life. Exercising options, though, involves taking chances. Sometimes taking a chance is a good thing. After all, a lot of good things got done and built during the country’s Great Depression that helped the nation and its beleaguered citizens make it through. Adding to our problem is the fact that we are now in an unprecedented competition with similar communities to retain and attract residents, jobs, businesses, tourists, etc.
    Consequently, Bedford cannot become complacent. Here are four realistic projects that I believe could get Bedford’s ball rolling a bit faster, and could be accomplished by a collaborative effort between the City and County and with assistance from grants, private donors, and volunteers.
    Idea Number 1: Re-landscape the most important public space in Bedford—the entire front of our majestic courthouse—which will also serve as a catalyst to bring more life to downtown.
    The County’s expansion of the courthouse in 1999 relocated the entry to the side and back of the building, rendering the original front entry non-functional. The idea is to highlight this beautiful building and the precious monuments around it as a new public gathering place, which can also dual as a downtown attraction.
    The centerpiece of the design involves digging up the 20 x 60 foot—essentially unused and unattractive—concrete slab at the base of the courthouse steps and out to the sidewalk, and replace it with a shallow, tile-lined reflective pool and three neon water fountains.
    The public can gather around the courthouse steps, around the pool and on the sidewalk to observe the fountains and the reflection of our magnificent courthouse façade upon the water. At night, purple, orange, and green neon lights will illuminate the fountain spray, creating a scintillating viewing spectacle.  This exciting, affordable, and image-enhancing improvement will not only establish downtown as the cool place to be, but also its businesses will reap a windfall as it draws a new surge of visitors and walkers to downtown.
    Some might think such a project frivolous, but consider that beauty and a sense of place play a vital role in making people feel proud of where they live. Not only that, such an eye-catching attraction can make a positive impression upon people and business owners considering relocating to Bedford.
    Idea Number 2: Relocate and expand our farmers’ market to an undeveloped and unsightly area north of the courthouse and along the railroad tracks.
    People nowadays are looking to buy their food and produce locally as it often offers higher quality, lower prices, and can help generate local jobs.  Unfortunately, Bedford’s farmers’ market is mis-designed, mis-located, and underused, and as a result, not flourishing.
    My philosophy is, if something is not right, don’t tolerate it—fix it. The idea is to build on this site a first-class farmers’ market, amphitheater set into the adjoining hillside, all amid a new green, park-like setting. What’s more, we might be able to secure a transportation grant to build a future train depot along the tracks in anticipation of Virginia re-instating passenger train service to Bedford. 
    This wholesome year-round attraction—which could be melded into a new two-mile downtown walking loop—would greatly improve downtown’s attractiveness, help our farmers, and benefit our struggling downtown businesses.
    Not only that, such an improvement project could enhance the city’s ability to market and develop the numerous vacant brick warehouse buildings across the tracks, maybe even turn some into condos.
    Idea Number 3: Capitalize on Bedford’s inherent strengths as a walking community and build a new central city neighborhood park with a new two-mile walking loop and connect it to the new downtown walking loop and the current three-mile walking loop. This gives Bedford a total of seven miles of designated walking paths, all inter-connected.
    We have an 11-acre open green space amid a charming neighborhood—essentially bordered by the Bedford Primary School, Bedford Avenue, and Mountain Avenue—that looks out upon the D-Day Memorial and downtown, but is largely unkempt and unused. This land could be transformed into a town jewel with a third walking loop, picnic areas, and a new Victorian concert bandstand. The new park would reinforce Bedford’s wholesome image as a beautiful, safe, green, and walkable community.    This inner-city park could be designed to have a beautiful arch-stone entrance and low stone decorative wall along College Boulevard as well as an adjacent parking area to be shared with the Primary School.
    Idea Number 4: Have a re-use plan in place for what to do with the Bedford Middle School building, the long-vacant public school building beside it, and the gymnasium before the new middle school is built. It is imperative this high-profile public space containing two impressive historical structures, and in the heart of Bedford, not be left as an after-thought.
    Some have already wisely suggested an alternate educational re-use for the two buildings, including possibly relocating the community college and/or a magnet school to the site. As for the gymnasium in back, I suggest retrofitting it to house an Olympic-sized swimming pool, slide, diving boards, and children’s fountain and play area, since the YMCA pool is painfully undersized, under-equipped, and over-used. This centrally-located recreational community attribute would also provide young people a new and healthy place to hang out and have fun.
    I am not sure whether my fellow citizens will like any of these ideas, but at the least I hope the issue I have raised will spark public discussion.
    Despite the gloom and doom around us, there is still opportunity before us. And if we can roll up our sleeves, think outside the box, and work together, we can make sure Bedford—known as the World’s Best Little Town—remains alive and well.