Mercer Street

Staff photo

The Mercer Street Grassroots District has become a total cultural experience with the addition of new businesses and foot traffic in the area.

PRINCETON – The Princeton Renaissance Project began in 2013 as a two-fold effort of beautification and community revitalization. In the six years since, two of the leaders of the project, Greg Puckett, Executive Director of Community Connections and Lori McKinney, Director of The RiffRaff Arts Collective have worked tirelessly to breathe life into Princeton.

In a 2013 article in The Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Puckett said, “We know through our research and statistics that environment is important,” Puckett said. “We have mural projects and beautification efforts, but we’re also looking for businesses to bring back downtown. If it can be done in Beckley and Lewisburg, we can do it anywhere.”

Today, downtown Princeton has become a destination. The brick walls are covered in murals with art and encouraging phrases. In addition, according to McKinney, there are only four open storefronts on Mercer Street.

“Business recruitment in itself attracts people,” McKinney said. “The grassroots project are full of positive energy. People are discovering downtown and we are on track to hit max capacity in the next year. Right now we only have four storefronts open and they need some love and care, but we have some inquiries about them. When we moved into the Riff Raff, we were at 80 percent vacancy.”

The Riff Raff McKinney is referring to is in the heart of downtown Princeton. It is an arts collective that, according to McKinney is a cooperative and interdisciplinary group of performing, visual, literary and healing artists. It is broken up into several entities across two buildings on Mercer Street and holds regular events in both venues.

The Princeton Renaissance Project as a whole also holds many events throughout the year, promoting the arts and community. Events like the New Year’s Eve celebration, Downtown Countdown, and regular annual art walks are in their sixth year and “mature stable,” McKinney said.

“Moving forward in 2020, we want to keep going with the first Fridays and Art Walks,” McKinney said. “I am excited about the upcoming Farmer’s Market, but I can’t say much else about that project right now.”

McKinney said that she attributes a lot of the success of The Princeton Renaissance Project to aesthetic improvements and public art, many of the murals done by Greg Puckett, who has painted seven buildings just in the past year. She also mentioned some major renovations in the works for Dick Copeland Square.

“When you do community design change, the physical design of the community, facades and make things more amenable to change,” Puckett said. “People ask me all the time why I am painting a wall; I am painting that wall because it changes the environment, it would have been very difficult to make those economic changes without aesthetic changes.”

In addition to aesthetic changes, thriving local businesses have moved into downtown Princeton. These businesses are unique and thriving. There are around 60 businesses listed on the Princeton Renaissance Project’s website, that vary from art galleries to furniture stores. These businesses are all over Princeton, not just on Mercer Street.

Just in the last few years, Hammer and Stain, Appalachian Coffee House and Sophisticated Hound Brewing have moved onto Mercer Street.

“We have a great group of entrepreneurs that have moved into Mercer Street and they are passionate about what they do and we meet regularly with them,” McKinney said. “Not only do we have storefronts, but we also have really nice storefronts. The Blue Ridge Bee Company that is getting ready to open, they are doing some gorgeous things with their storefront. Appalachian coffee has been such a huge hit with the community, I mean, everyone loves coffee.”

McKinney and Puckett both spoke of “naysayers” when the Princeton Renaissance Project began. Puckett said the negativity only fuels him to work harder.

“Early on when we started it was a lot of criticism and questions like we were crazy. I knew with years of training, this would work,” Puckett said. “For me, it is humbling to know that I had a part in it and you know when people say good things, you take it, but there is always that one person, that just makes me want to prove them wrong. The positives are great, but the negatives are the ones that drive me.”

On another side of the dice, McKinney said she prefers to tune it out and focus on her work. She said she prefers to tune into the people who are hungry for what they have to offer.

“I know there are people that appreciate, care and get what we are doing. There are always going to be negative people and I try to focus on the positive,” McKinney said. “There has been such a big attitude shift with the people of Princeton about the Renaissance project. I have had multiple people change their mind after they’ve seen what a difference we have made. It has signaled an attitude shift to me. Most of the non-believers are on board now.”

McKinney said that along with the success of the project and the changes they have made in Princeton, one of the most rewarding parts is to see the shift in the general public.

“The public has begun to realize that we are doing something great here,” McKinney said. “With a core group of passionate and dedicated people, we have been successful. I would also like the public to know that they can get involved too. They can create their own part of downtown, carve out their own piece. Everything we do is open to anyone who wants to be a part of it, you just have to make some moves.”

— Contact Emily Rice at erice@bdtonline.com

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