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Revitalizing Downtown Harrisonburg

Development duo honor area history while retooling historic sites
By Gabrielle Piccininni (‘11)

Barry Kelley (‘83) and Andrew Forward (‘86) shared an inspiration to help revitalize downtown while honoring the area's history and their alma mater's outreach

Barry Kelley (‘83) and Andrew Forward (‘86) enjoy the comfort of the fourth–floor Apex inside Urban Exchange.

In the last nine years, residency in the heart of Harrisonburg’s downtown has increased 250 percent, due in part to the innovative minds of two Madison alumni, Andrew Forward (‘86) and Barry Kelley (‘83). This development duo has helped merge the Madison and Harrisonburg communities – the campus’ and city’s spirit, environment, culture and vibrancy.

Forward and Kelley teamed up in 2005 with plans to bring positive change to downtown Harrisonburg and give back to the community that fostered their education. Forward studied political science as an undergraduate, while Kelley studied biology, but both Dukes built successful careers in real estate. Forward is the owner of Chathill & Associates and Kelley is the president of Matchbox Realty. Together, they are the co–developers of The Flats at City Exchange and the Urban Exchange apartment complexes in downtown Harrisonburg.

Although City Exchange and Urban Exchange were carried out with vastly different strategies and development styles, the same motivation fueled the goals of both ventures. Forward and Kelley wanted to bring life back to the area to stimulate the economy as well as to buttress the relationship between the Harrisonburg and JMU communities.

Historical Perspectives

On the corner of West Gay Street and Noll Drive sits a long brick building emblazoned with bold black and white paint spelling out “City Produce Exchange: Butter Eggs & Poultry. Established 1908.” In its heyday, City Produce was the largest chicken–fattening and egg production enterprise of its kind in the country. By the mid–1940s the produce business changed, however, causing owners to sell the building to the Wetsel Seed Co.

Founded in 1911, Wetsel Seed Co. was one of the largest seed companies in the Eastern U.S. and one of the world’s primary sources of orchard grass seeds. Outgrowing its West Market Street locale, Wetsel began to seek out properties for additional storage and cleaning space. They found their solution only a few blocks away at the City Produce Exchange and bought the property in 1949. At the time the $100,000 purchase was the largest real estate transaction in Harrisonburg history.

Harrisonburg’s downtown was not immune – like many downtown communities across the nation – to the 1970s explosion of suburbia and retail malls relocating stores to larger centers.

A Vision To Restore

Forward and Kelley saw the decline of Harrisonburg’s downtown and were determined to make a change. They started with a plan to restore vibrancy back into the historic site of the City Produce Exchange. They knew a residential space close to downtown could return life and retail opportunities. It’s an initiative similar to that of the Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance organization, formed in 2003. “One of our goals is to encourage and promote downtown living,” says Downtown Renaissance Executive Director Eddie Bumbaugh (‘73). “The rationale is if you live downtown, you’re more likely to shop, dine and attend events downtown.”

To maintain the site’s rustic roots Forward and Kelley worked with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources to convert City Exchange into 32 luxury apartments. The development duo also embraced the original structure by reusing old doors and windows and by exposing original beams and brick walls. Mirroring JMU’s history, City Exchange successfully marries modern innovation with part of Harrisonburg’s agricultural history.

After myriad positive responses to the City Exchange revitalization, the duo set their sites on the Urban Exchange project. “We saw an opportunity to link up with the expansion of JMU and what it offers,” explains Forward. In the last 15 years, JMU has implemented 20 academic programs, constructed 25 buildings and increased campus by 2.4 million square feet. With a 37 percent increase in enrollment, the need for additional off–campus housing was immediate.

“We saw Urban Exchange becoming a place where campus, city and corporation live together,” says Kelley. “It is a one of a kind that was designed for the needs of our community.”

Remembering his undergraduate biology studies, Kelley adds, “It might have been wise to take a few business classes, but my biology professors taught me to process information logically. We were taught how to organize, classify and identify. This in itself provided an appreciation of systems and logic. In a simplistic view, real property plus the people that need and use it is an ecosystem. The social, physical and emotional aspects of places all factor into its function with people... It comes down to how we live, it is part of our biology.”

Sustainability with a Nod to History

Echoing the reintegration of on–site materials at City Exchange, a key feature of the Urban Exchange project was to build affordably and sustainably. Forward and Kelley closely adhered to U.S. Green Building Council principles throughout construction. Despite its expressively modern appearance, the inspiration of the building’s design stemmed from Harrisonburg’s agricultural heritage. “The mechanics, the factories, the silos in the horizon are very rich and full of energy,” explains Urban Exchange architect, Philippe Jentsch.

Within walking distance of the JMU campus, the Farmer’s Market, historic sites, and an increasing number of restaurants and shops, Urban Exchange and The Flats at City Exchange are helping bring downtown Harrisonburg back to full bloom. But more important than the standing structures are the students, community members and alumni who walk through the streets and about campus, honoring Harrisonburg’s history and molding its future.

Read more about Urban Exchange’s inspiration and architecture at www.liveue.com. Learn more about downtown Harrisonburg at www.downtownharrisonburg.org.