Danville shows Martinsville how to turn around a city

Here’s how much the world has changed: We’re now looking to Danville as an example of how to do things.

We are just four years removed from the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate – Corey Stewart – depicting Danville as “boarded-up” and “sad,” and a national news story that called the city a “decomposed industrial hulk.” Both were wrong – that harsh assessment of the city was about two decades out of date – but sometimes right and wrong doesn’t matter in politics or public perception.

The facts on the ground in Danville changed quite some time ago, and are still changing. And now the public perception is finally catching up with the ground truth. That was one of my first takeaways from an event I attended last week: Danville, far from being the “decomposed industrial hulk” that Breitbart News made it out to be, is now being looked to as a leader in how to turn around a city’s fortunes, and with good reason.

The event was the “Level Up” summit of community leaders in Martinsville and Henry County, sponsored by the Harvest Foundation, a community foundation funded by the sale of the nonprofit hospital in Martinsville. Full disclosure: The Harvest Foundation has made a grant that will enable us to hire a yet-to-be named reporter in Martinsville. (Donors have no say in news decisions; you can be a donor and have no say, too. Here’s how.) The Harvest Foundation also asked me to speak at that conference, to present demographic data about population trends in the community. I shared those in yesterday’s column. Today I’ll write about what else I heard there, because there may be lessons applicable to other communities. So yes, to learn about Martinsville, we begin with Danville. Both are communities laid low decades ago – the collapse of textiles and tobacco in Danville, the collapse of textiles and furniture in Martinsville. Danville, it’s fair to say, is well ahead of Martinsville in reinventing itself, which is why the Martinsville summit invited Danville’s Telly Tucker to speak. Tucker is the city’s former economic development chief; he’s now president of the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research, a difficult-to-describe research and job training center in Danville.

Tucker’s main points, which are certainly applicable elsewhere: “There won’t be a light switch we can flip that gets us back to a place of prosperity overnight,” he said. “In Danville, we looked at a 40-year rebuilding plan.”

Let’s just pause there and ponder the enormousness of that. Forty years. We live in an era where we expect immediate results, from instant coffee to instant messaging to entertainment available on demand. Forty years seems an eternity. We also elect local officeholders to four-year terms. Forty years is 10 of those terms back to back to back to back to back to back to back to back to back to back. That’s a long time to carry out a program, especially when there will obviously be turnover on the city council. And yet Tucker’s advice: “Develop a plan and stay the course through cycles of political change.” That’s a hard thing to do, but it’s also essential if you’re really going to be serious about reinventing a community’s economy. It means that there must be a broad community consensus about the direction of the city so that the plan can stay in place despite the inevitable political swings that will happen over 40 years. Roanoke is a good example of that: There’s been a broad consensus for about the past two decades about what the city needs to do – revitalize downtown, strengthen neighborhoods, cooperate with other local governments on economic development – and that consensus has held no matter who has served on the city council.

Danville is only a decade or so into that 40-year plan but already has a lot to show for it. Two things stand out.

First, Danville and Pittsylvania County cut a deal to share tax revenues from new business parks – the county had the land, the city had the infrastructure to serve them. Virginia’s system of independent cities and counties often sets up cities and counties as rivals; this deal made Danville and Pittsylvania partners. This wasn’t just Tucker giving a sales pitch for his city; at last year’s Senate Finance Committee retreat, then-Secretary of Commerce and Trade Brian Ball held up Danville and Pittsylvania as a paragon of local government cooperation on economic development. They have very different politics – the former votes Republican, the latter Democratic – but they have figured out that their economies are linked. “Whenever we’ve worked companies in this country or overseas, they’ve always been there together,” Ball said then. Other communities don’t work that way but should, he said. Whoever those other communities are, take heed. Also take heed of this: From 2018 to 2021, there’s been more than $1.1 billion worth of private investment announced in the community, totaling 3,922 new jobs. Now, that includes the casino jobs that aren’t there yet, so if you drop those out, you’re still at $632.5 million in private investment and 2,622 jobs. Many of these fall under the heading of “advanced manufacturing,” a sector that Danville (and Pittsylvania) have specifically focused on. Again, I’ll offer some insight from my years of covering the Roanoke Valley: For a long time, Roanoke and Roanoke County seemed to delight in fighting with each other, and Salem held itself aloof from both of them. At some point about two decades ago, Roanoke and Roanoke County realized that their competition isn’t on the other side of Peters Creek Road; it’s on the other side of the world. Like Danville and Pittsylvania, Roanoke and Roanoke County have very different politics but a few years ago they joined together – Salem, too – on a joint business park, Wood Haven. There now seems a general recognition that what’s good for one is good for all.

Second, Danville has focused on rejuvenating its downtown. This is hardly unique to Danville. Roanoke has done the same thing, starting back in the 1970s. Danville’s downtown start came later. In 2010, community leaders made a fact-finding trip to Greenville, South Carolina, another former textile town that had won national praise for its rebuilt downtown. Out of that came Danville’s plan. That plan was not without controversy. Downtown Danville then had a lot of absentee landlords or other building owners who were, as Tucker put it, “not vested in the community.” They were content to let their properties sit there.

Danville’s Industrial Development Authority set out to buy those buildings and then sell them at cost to developers who would do something with them. “Some of them we actually bought above market value,” Tucker said. “As you can imagine that wasn’t always popular” – but it was deemed necessary to turn unused, rundown buildings into developable properties. The proof is now visible in a downtown – rebranded as the River District – where there are 757 apartments and lofts, with 350 more on the way. Tucker said there are multiple lessons here: “Often the public sector does have to lead as a signal to the private sector,” he said. And another: “Often what we see is residential leads commercial. The minute you started seeing residents there, that became the impetus for commercial activity.”

So what does it mean when he says the public sector has to lead? Buying those buildings – and sometimes overpaying for them if that was the only way to get them out of disinterested hands – was only the start. Danville also gave grants to some businesses to get started downtown. “You may have to buy your first couple of destination-type businesses,” he said. “When I say buy, you may have to provide some capital that you may not recover in direct revenue but you will in indirect tax revenue.”

Some communities may have to set aside their free-market instincts for a more interventionist policy to help jump-start that free market. “We took a risk,” Tucker said. “And some of those businesses didn’t make it. Some of them we lost money on but far more we were successful with.”

Tucker’s message comes at a time when Martinsville is focusing anew on how to rejuvenate its downtown – Uptown Martinsville in the local language. Some things are clearly happening already: The city counts 46 businesses there that have started or expanded since the pandemic began. “Before the pandemic, there was little foot traffic, especially on the weekends. That was nonexistent,” Mayor Kathy Lawson recently told WDBJ-TV. “Now, it is foot traffic every day and on the weekends especially because of Uptown Pinball. The streets are packed and we’re seeing a lot of people come in from out of town.” The big part that seems missing is people living downtown on the scale that they do in Danville or Roanoke or Lynchburg.

I gather that the subtext of the conference was to show Martinsville community leaders what’s possible – and maybe instill a little more positive thinking in a community where that might still feel foreign after the trauma of seeing its economic mainstays collapse. “We do deserve all the great things coming our way,” said Sarah Hodges of the Martinsville Henry County Economic Development Corporation.

“We don’t have to go with the status quo,” said Derrick Ziglar Jr., a 30-year-old developer who grew up in Martinsville, went off to college in Dallas and now has returned to work in his hometown. “It’s easy for people to accept the bare minimum.”

It also seemed clear that some in the community are still grappling with old issues of race, complicated by changing demographics that see a growing Latino community. The Latino population in Henry County is now about 6.2%, according to the U.S. Census. In one census tract northwest of Martinsville, between the Smith River and Virginia Avenue, the figure swells to 13.5%. On the other hand, there also seemed a recognition in some quarters that the Latino community can be part of the community’s economic rebirth. One business owner – LaDonna Hairston of Performance 276 fitness center – stood up and gave this advice: “They say if they see a flier and it’s not in Spanish, they don’t feel invited.” She then offered advice to business owners on how to get their materials translated. As I’ve pointed out in a previous column, immigration feels new to us in the South for two reasons: First, most adults have grown up during a period of abnormally low immigration, so when immigration returns to what are historically normal levels, it feels odd. Second, even those prior waves of immigration largely passed us by, concentrating instead in the Northeast and Midwest. Now we see different patterns.

The conference also heard from Anna Wheeler, who recently moved to Martinsville to work for the Dan River Basin Association, a group that promotes the river system for recreation. “The hardest thing is finding people my age,” she said. (The demographic data I presented showed that both Martinsville and Henry County have a median age that’s higher than the state median. Henry County is especially high – 47.8 versus a state figure of 38.8.) On the other hand, “I love the positivity,” she said. I get the feeling it’s been a long time since anyone said that about Martinsville. Two decades ago Martinsville was pretty much left for dead – yet now something seems to be happening here. It may be tentative, it may be hard for some to see, but people like Ziglar and Wheeler sure see it. “All you need are a couple of catalysts,” Ziglar said.

So in the end maybe there are two big lessons here: Not only is Danville well recognized as a leader in turning around a city but maybe Martinsville is showing signs of following Danville’s lead.

Article by Dwayne Yancey | Cardinal News