Danville’s revitalization plan faced skepticism, but now it’s a model for other communities. Here’s how the city did it.

Danville’s downtown revitalization is one that other localities are trying to mirror.

Locals say that Craghead Street used to be like a ghost town, and now it’s home to restaurants, apartments, a brewery and a science center. The city’s downtown, called the River District, alone has seen about $300 million in public and private investment in the last decade.

How did Danville do it?

Not without some unpopular decisions, said Telly Tucker, who was economic development director from 2014 to 2020.

But even before this, Danville’s Industrial Development Authority was making waves by buying up empty old buildings in the River District to get them redeveloped. The IDA used this strategy to transform Dan River Mills properties after the industry left in 2006, depressing the local economy.

But that’s only part of the story. The IDA did the same with non-mill buildings, too, especially in the River District, formerly the warehouse district of Danville.

A view of Craghead Street about a decade ago, before developer Rick Barker renovated these buildings into the streetscape seen in the large photo above. Photo courtesy of Rick Barker Properties. 

The River District is made up of former tobacco warehouses, and after the decline of that industry, absentee owners often had no interest in seeing their properties redeveloped, Tucker said.

“The Danville IDA started buying properties back, trying to assemble parcels of land that they could stabilize and then market,” Tucker said. “That was rather controversial.”

Tax-paying citizens don’t want to see their government spending tens of thousands — sometimes hundreds of thousands — of dollars to buy back “old, abandoned, dilapidated buildings,” he said.

There were a lot of skeptics in the beginning, said Corrie Bobe, Danville’s current economic development director.

“People said, ‘Why are you spending so much money in one central area when there are other needs throughout the entire community?’” Bobe said.

But city officials believed that targeting the River District was a priority, predicting that a vibrant downtown would spur growth and redevelopment in other areas.

And ignoring downtown redevelopment had cost the city in the past.

More than a decade ago, the CEO of a major manufacturing plant and his wife came to Danville unannounced. This is normal in economic development, Tucker said, as companies like to do their research before locating somewhere.

“They took one drive up Main Street and saw a bunch of boarded-up buildings, no one there, this dead downtown,” Tucker said. “It didn’t take long for them to say, ‘This is not the place where we want to put our business.’”

Losing that opportunity was painful, Tucker said, but it was “actually a blessing to hold that mirror up.”

“If we’re ever going to get to a point where others are going to invest in us, we’re going to have to invest in ourselves first,” Tucker said.

So the city began to view the buildings as unique assets, he said, and developed the River District Revitalization Plan in 2011. It was meant to be a living document, Tucker said, something that could be tweaked as needed.

Annual tax revenue has significantly increased in the River District since the plan was implemented, with new businesses and residents choosing to locate there, Bobe said. The city recently completed an analysis of real estate taxes from properties that have used historic tax credits.

“Since 2011, 17 tax credit projects have been completed in the River District,” Bobe said. “Prior to redevelopment, these structures generated $25,520 of annual real estate tax revenue for the city. Now, these 17 projects generate $480,502 of annual tax revenue.”

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Focusing on a ‘more macro vision’

The plan had three goals: eliminating blight, bringing critical mass and creating lifestyle amenities.

To eliminate blight, the city had to decide which properties to target for redevelopment first, Bobe said, and it chose “key properties that were highly visible.”

“If you look at some of the initial purchases that the IDA made, there are a lot of locations that are gateways and entry points into the River District,” she said.

Sometimes, the IDA even bought property at above market value, which was even more unpopular, though Tucker brought up the age-old debate between price and worth. To someone who is purely looking at tax assessed values, it’s easy to say the city paid too much, he said.

“If I use that lens, then yeah, we overpaid,” Tucker said. “But how do you place a value on indirect and induced impact? If you acquired this building and it got repurposed, and now three other projects are happening because of it, that has to be accounted for.”

The city had a “more macro vision,” Tucker said. Making a short-term profit wasn’t the goal, which sometimes meant investing in things that wouldn’t normally be invested in.

Take Newton’s Landing on Bridge Street, for example. Between 1990 and 1992, the site was leased to a family that operated a junkyard and metal scrapping and salvaging business, said Bobe, and it became contaminated with debris like oil and lead.

Because of this, the site was classified as a brownfield in 2001. The city received a federal grant to cap the site in 2008 and turned it into a parking lot.

“Creating 400 parking spaces when nothing was going on downtown? You can imagine people were questioning why we did that,” Tucker said. “But our conversations with developers told us that if we didn’t have parking, we couldn’t attract anyone to redevelop the buildings.”

Without those parking spaces, nothing else on Bridge Street would have been redeveloped, Tucker said — and today, every building on the street has been redeveloped.

Recently, there are fewer skeptics, he said. “Some of our biggest detractors 20 years ago are some of our biggest supporters in Danville today.”

Being able to see the physical changes downtown helped shift this mindset, Bobe said.

“Instead of talking about revitalization, when they walk through the downtown, they’re seeing it put into action,” she said.

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From vacant warehouses to tacos and tequila

One of the most drastic transformations in the River District is the 500 block of Craghead Street.

The primary developer of this block is Rick Barker, founder and CEO of Danville-based distribution service Supply Resources, which is now headquartered there.

Barker said that the city had high expectations for its developers. He said the city told him “no” three times before he acquired his new headquarters in 2014 for $85,000.

“The city would only sell you a building if you had a credible plan, something that was a net positive to the district,” Barker said.

Tucker said the city would only sell property to a developer if they had proof of financing and a vision for how their plan for the site would align with the city’s revitalization plan.

“They couldn’t just buy it and sit on it,” he said. “If they didn’t develop it in a certain time, the property would revert back to the city, or they would have to pay additional funds.”

Barker described himself as a preservationist, saying he was drawn to the old brick buildings of what used to be called the “warehouse district” of Danville.

The new Supply Resources headquarters was redeveloped in 15 months. After that, Barker decided to keep going.

“In 2015, we had a big shiny building in a pretty bad neighborhood, which made everything else in its viewshed inexpensive,” Barker said. “Really, as a defensive play, we acquired some other buildings.”

Barker, with what is now Rick Barker Properties, eventually acquired nine other buildings on the block. Rick Barker Properties, the property management company that is headquartered in the same building as Supply Resources, was created to manage these acquisitions.

Rick Barker Properties turned one of the buildings into Mucho Taqueria, a restaurant and tequila bar. Another became loft apartments, “which have been full with a waiting list since construction,” Barker said. Still others are rented by financial service companies and a pop-up art gallery.

The total investment on this block is about $10 million today, and will exceed $15 million when completed, Barker said.

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The Downtowner Motor Inn was part of a chain with locations in the South, Midwest and West. This photo of the Downtowner in Danville is from 1967. Photo courtesy of the city of Danville.

Advice from someone who’s been there: Develop a plan and stick with it

Despite the skepticism about the IDA’s plan to revitalize the city by buying up empty buildings, Barker said investing in River District properties was “never as risky as people thought.”

“It’s not that people who are negative are necessarily naysayers,” he said. “They’re just ill-informed. If the general public had known what I knew, they’d feel the same way.”

Barker said he knew the revitalization plan was solid, and that the city would stick to it.

The 500 block of Craghead Street is one of the main thoroughfares into the River District, making its redevelopment all the more impactful, Bobe said.

“Prior to his involvement and acquisition, as well as the IDA’s involvement, that was a predominantly vacant, heavily blighted block,” she said.

Tucker said that other locals, like Barker, and even some out-of-towners became developers, fulfilling the city’s desire for a true public-private partnership in the River District.

To bring critical mass, the second goal of the revitalization plan, the city took on some more mundane projects like widening sidewalks, creating greenspaces and installing wayfinding signage.

In later phases of the River District redevelopment, the city began to offer financial incentives, like tax rebates and grants, to encourage businesses to locate downtown, Tucker said. This helped achieve the third goal of creating lifestyle amenities — especially retail, restaurants and entertainment.

“It was all about the experience, it was all about creating vibrancy,” he said. “We want people to want to be here, not just during the day, but after hours and weekends.”

Tucker spoke at a local business summit in Martinsville in October to share Danville’s story and to offer tips for other communities looking for revitalization and redevelopment.

He said his best advice was to develop a plan and stick to it, stay the course through cycles of elected change, and have newcomers in leadership buy into the plan, he said during the presentation.

This advice originally came from Knox White, the longtime mayor of Greenville, South Carolina. Danville officials visited Greenville at the outset of this process because it had similar demographics, history and geography to Danville — and had seen a considerable revitalization.

Bobe echoed White’s advice and added that it’s important to find creative ways to collaborate with the private sector. She also said it’s crucial to communicate with residents — especially if they’re skeptical.

“Especially in an area where there’s been substantial disinvestment, communicate continuously with residents about the plan, the strategy, and celebrate every milestone that occurs, so they understand what’s happening,” Bobe said.

There are still a handful of empty storefronts in the River District, and other revitalization needs outside of downtown, but the city has seen considerable success since it started this process.

Now, the River District has reached the point where it sees a critical mass of residents and customers daily, which can sometimes make parking a challenge, Bobe said.

“Additional parking investments are being considered,” she said. “If we were to go back and reconsider steps taken in the process, I believe we would have begun implementing solutions at an earlier stage of our redevelopment efforts.”

And the revitalization has indeed sparked other developments. Several major investments have come to Danville in recent years, like the Caesars Virginia casino resort and the AeroFarms indoor vertical farming plant.

Not everyone will be on board from day one, and there have been a lot of growing pains along the way, Tucker said. But the alternative is to remain stagnant at best and decline at worst, he said.

“There’s always risk associated with making bold decisions, but you can’t let your fear paralyze you in terms of not making a decision,” Tucker said. “When you don’t change anything, you’re waiting to see what happens to you as opposed to controlling what happens for you.”

by GRACE MAMON is a reporter for Cardinal News.