In 1982, the Virginia Downtown Development Association (VDDA) was established to provide assistance and networking opportunities for smaller communities interested in undertaking a revitalization program and to serve as an advocate for Virginia's downtowns. It's hard to imagine today, but in the late 1970s and early 1980s, only a small number of Virginia's towns and cities under 50,000 residents had active downtown revitalization programs. Charlottesville, Harrisonburg, Fredericksburg, Staunton and Winchester were among the few. There were also few, if any, sources of assistance within the state for communities interested in undertaking such an effort. VDDA was established to help fill this void.
The growing interest in downtown revitalization at this time was a trend that was closely monitored by staff in Virginia's Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD). In 1980, the National Trust for Historic Preservation announced a competition to select five states to serve as national models for the Main Street Approach-the Trust's innovative four-point approach for saving historic buildings in the nation's small communities. Much to the chagrin of downtown advocates around the state, Virginia chose not to apply for the program. The quick deadline for submission of applications and the belief by state officials that smaller communities would be unwilling to commit the resources required for participation in the program were the primary reasons provided for this decision. Instead, DHCD made a decision to commit staff and other resources to assist Virginia's towns and smaller communities that were interested in undertaking downtown revitalization efforts.
The staff from DHCD organized the first meeting of individuals that would later form the Virginia Downtown Development Association in 1983. Among the earliest participants were John Deehan, Executive Director, Staunton United Revitalization Effort; Jim Deskins, Director, Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority; John Marlles, Program Manager, Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development; Sally Miller, Director, Front Royal Chamber of Commerce; Kennedy Smith, Charlottesville's Downtown Mall Director; and Sonya Tolley, Director, Winchester Downtown Development Board.
With administrative support provided by DHCD, the group undertook an ambitious agenda that included conducting a statewide conference held in Winchester, a periodic newsletter, quarterly meetings and a speaker's bureau. The group was also active in supporting legislation such as the elimination of population restrictions for cities wishing to establish downtown assessment districts to fund downtown development activities (approved by the 1983 General Assembly) and programs which supported downtown revitalization. When the National Main Street Center, an affiliate of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, opened participation in the Main Street Program to any interested state, VDDA along with many local officials from across the state was a strong advocate for Virginia's participation in the program. The decision in 1984 by then Governor Robb that Virginia would participate in the National Main Street Program marked one of VDDA's earliest significant accomplishments.
Virginia's participation in the Main Street Program starting in 1985 sparked interest in downtown revitalization across the state. The Virginia Main Street Program provides three years of design and technical assistance from state and national Main Street Center staff for communities competitively selected into the program. In the early years of the Virginia Main Street Program, VDDA played a valuable role by providing information, technical assistance and networking opportunities to communities that were not selected or could not qualify for the state program. The organization experienced considerable growth in its membership during this period. By 1987, VDDA had over 50 members, including 17 downtown directors, reflecting the growing understanding that full-time management is a critical ingredient for a successful downtown revitalization program.