July 30, 2014 - Virginia "Ginny" Schomisch believes one of the keys to creating a prosperous future for downtown Oxford is preserving and promoting its past through historic buildings.
Schomisch (click for larger version)
"There are statistics that show people who visit a downtown are more likely to stay there when it has some sort of historic aspect (to it)," said the 24-year-old Ypsilanti resident and new executive director for the Downtown Development Authority (DDA).
The challenge for a place like Oxford is with so many other communities claiming to be historic, "you have to really differentiate yourself."
"I think Oxford has the ability to do that," she said. "The caliber of historic buildings in Oxford is insanely better than a lot of other communities in Michigan."
Schomisch will have plenty of opportunities to prove history's economic value to Oxford as the village council last week voted 5-0 to hire her to run the DDA's operations at an hourly rate of $19.25 and for an annual salary not to exceed $25,000. The DDA board recommended her for the director job.
She's definitely no stranger to small towns.
She was raised in the Village of Fowler, a rural community north of Lansing that was founded in 1857 and has a population of approximately 1,200.
Schomisch's top priority as she assumes her new position with the DDA is to acquaint herself with Oxford.
"I really just want to learn the ropes of the community and get to know the different business owners and the different residents," she said.
Ultimately, she wants "to make sure" that her goals as DDA director "match" the goals "that the community has in mind."
Historic preservation is the main focus of Schomisch's education and skills. She developed the interest as a little girl visiting historic sites around the Midwest during family vacations.
That led her to pursue a Bachelor of Science in Architecture, which she earned in April 2012 from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
But she soon realized that she didn't "feel the same passion" for the design-related aspect of architecture as she did for the historic preservation side of the field.
Schomisch continued her education by pursuing a Master of Science in Historic Preservation, which she'll receive from Eastern Michigan University in August.
"I really just decided to go back to my roots," she said.
Schomisch will be wrapping up an internship with Monroe next week. Since April, she's been working as a historic preservation and planning assistant with the city's Department of Economic and Community Development.
Her internship has exposed her to local politics and municipal planning, and given her valuable experience dealing with business owners and contractors. "I have learned a lot from Monroe," she said.
When it comes to historic buildings, Schomisch is a passionate proponent of preserving and re-purposing them as opposed to demolishing them to make way for new construction.
"I think a lot of people get to the point where they look at an old building and they just don't really see it's value," she said. "They would rather have something that's bright and shiny."
"Not everybody thinks that way, but we encounter that (attitude) quite a bit in (preservation work)," Schomisch noted.
In contrast, she believes people need to consider that just because a building is old "doesn't mean (it) can't be adapted" for a new purpose that fits "the needs of a community in a different way."
Schomisch said Michigan has many downtowns filled with historic buildings that represent the "early development" of their communities.
"Instead of spreading out and trying to build something new" away from these traditional town centers, she believes historic buildings are "worth saving" and can become a "huge asset" to the community when they're given a new lease on life.
"I think it's an opportunity that we have a tendency to overlook," Schomisch said.
Historic downtowns can offer "a sense of place," according to Schomisch, that aids economic development efforts. Visitors are often attracted to places that have a "special character," she said.
She believes downtown Oxford's historic buildings "really do work together" and "there's definitely a potential to increase" that cohesiveness to create an image that appeals to visitors.
CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.