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Turnaround town

A former Gold Rush outpost reinvigorates its downtown, and revives itsfortunes

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By 6 p.m. all the cars are gone from Mill Street. Out come boxes of fresh peaches, apricots, strawberries, string beans, and tomatoes to be placed on farm-stand tables.

It's a warm Friday night in this former Gold Rush town of 9,500, and the superfriendly, G-rated, Grass Valley Friday Market and Street Festival is under way. Overhead, a fingernail moon looks down from a dark blue sky.

Merchants - booksellers, dressmakers, antique dealers, jewelers, craft artists, a cotton-candy maker - are on the street with goods on display, and the band Free Association plays live music.

At street level this looks like a casually organized small-town festival of commerce and community. But in fact it is the evidence of life-saving decisions made 20 years years ago to revitalize a historic downtown area that was about as inviting as stale bread.

"It's amazing what has happened in Grass Valley in the last five years, much less the last 20 years," says Jim Beitz, who lived here as a child and owns a jewelry store on Mill Street. "I wouldn't live any other place."

Awakening to its potential

Grass Valley has been so successful in remaking itself that in l997, Time magazine declared the town to be one of the Top 10 best places to live in America.

What Grass Valley did in l986, after a department store pulled out of a deflated downtown area already experiencing increased vacancies, was to adopt techniques and concepts for revitalization developed by the National Main Street Center (NMSC) of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington.

NMSC, operating as the umbrella organization for agencies in 45 states, has been largely responsible for the national trend of helping small-town America awaken to its old-new potential.

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