By Randy Arrington
LURAY, Nov. 16 — At last week’s Luray Council meeting, she said it softly, with little fanfare, hoping the moment would pass quietly.
“Just as a reminder, we will be looking to hire a new program director before the end of February,” Meredith Dees told council members last Monday night.
Dees, the current program director of the Luray Downtown Initiative, didn’t bring a lot of attention to the fact that she will be stepping down from the role she has held for the past four years.
“Sometimes when you are close to something, you have to take a step back and allow someone else to come in with new ideas and new vision, if you really care about it…we need a fresh look on things sometimes,” Dees said on Monday regarding her decision to leave the non-profit organization. “I will always be a cheerleader for downtown. I grew up here, and it’s my home.”
LDI’s Board of Directors hired Dees to lead downtown revitalization efforts in October 2016. Dees notes several accomplishments during her tenure highlighting how, “over the last four years, LDI, as an organization, has really grown.”
- LDI recently distributed $10,000 to 10 different business ($1,000 each) impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic;
- LDI secured $25,000 in state grant funding to develop a pocket park along the Route 340 North gateway into town through the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development and the Virginia Main Street program;
- LDI generated feasibility studies to help downtown owners see potential opportunities in their properties;
- LDI reactivated its facade improvement program last year to provide 50/50 matching grant funds up to $2,500 per business.
However, as much as she has done to help current business owners and attract new business to Luray’s downtown, Dees acknowledges that it’s often an uphill battle.
“If I had a magic wand, I would use it, but economic development is not something that happens overnight,” the LDI program director said. “If I had every business come to Luray who I’ve talked to about coming to Luray, there would be more than we have space to put them.”
But she also notes that the last four years have also produced many rewarding moments as well.
“It happens pretty often… when a new owner closes on a property or have their first opening… it’s incredibly rewarding to see people believe in downtown as much as you do,” Dees said. “Also the events we’ve done, like the [Christmas] tree lighting and Halloween…to see how much people enjoy our downtown and being downtown is really rewarding…to see that Hallmark movie happening right in front of you is special.”
One of the biggest changes that Dees noted during her four-year tenure is the improved communication and coordinated efforts between various government agencies in the county, especially with Gina Hilliard at the Luray-Page County Chamber of Commerce and Liz Lewis at the county’s Economic Development and Tourism office.
“One of the things I noticed going into this office… everyone was working really hard, but not really working together,” Dees said. “Now, we are working together.”
The LDI Board of Directors will now begin sorting through applications for the position of program director. Applications, resumes and references may be sent to: [email protected]
“There is no better group to report to… a great group of people to work with … whoever comes in is going to benefit from that,” Dees said of LDI’s directors. “Town Council has also been incredibly supportive of me and LDI. I think they all want to see downtown thrive. I’m excited to see what the new council coming in does.”
Bill Huffman, the chairman of LDI’s board, said he asked Dees to think over her decision for a week before making it public, which she did last Monday at the Luray Council meeting.
“Meredith has been an outstanding cheerleader of Downtown Luray,” Huffman said. “She has been focused on making it as vibrant as possible, and reaching out and working with downtown merchants and local government. She’s taken every directive the board has given her and excelled, but we will pick up and carry on our vision.
“It will certainly be a challenge to find someone to fill her shoes, but I have already had a few people contact me about it so I feel we will be able to fill the position,” Huffman said. “Meredith is just an outstanding person and has such great energy that I know she will be successful at whatever she chooses to do moving forward.”
While there is no specific timeline for a new hire, Huffman said he believes a new program director can be in place by late January.
“Meredith has graciously offered to work as a contracted employee [beyond her last day] to follow up on some grants and train the new person so we have a smooth transition,” Huffman added.
LDI will also have to fill a vacancy on its board of directors in January. Vice chairman Jason Pettit will the stepping down as he takes on his new role as a member of the Luray Council. Pettit received the most votes among five candidates competing for three council seats on Nov. 3.
According to Huffman, Ryanne Hudson, owner of the airbnb business Modern Luray in downtown (above the former bicycle shop where a new coffee shop by the bridge is coming soon), will become the new vice chairman of LDI’s board in January.
Dees also said that she wants to stay long enough with LDI to help train her replacement to keep things moving downtown.
“I won’t walk out and just throw my hands up. I care far too much to do that,” Dees said. “I just hope they find someone soon enough, so I have time to work alongside them before they are on their own.
“I may stay a little longer, if I need to, but I feel confident that they will find someone before February,” Dees added.
Dees, who has a 2-year-old daughter at home, has no immediate plans for her future employment, and she did not rule out coming back into her role at LDI in future years, if a vacancy came open.
But regardless of who takes her role at LDI, Dees hopes they carry her passion and understand their role.
“Have fun,” she offered to her successor. “It’s easy to get bogged down with an empty storefront, or that business that didn’t come here, or things out of your control, like a pandemic. You have to have a true passion for revitalizing downtown; you have to truly want it to happen.
“I truly believe that a thriving downtown supports business all over town,” Dees continued. “A rising tide lifts all ships, and if you have a thriving downtown, the entire community will benefit.”