The revitalization efforts for Danville’s River District have been largely successful, and now, the city is shifting its focus to other areas, such as the North Main Street corridor.
Using the River District as an anchor for revitalization and moving outwards from there was always the plan, said Diana Schwartz, executive director of the River District Association.
And with over $300 million in public and private investment devoted to the River District in the last 10 years, and the opening or expanding of 15 businesses between January and September of this year, it’s time to begin that outward expansion.
“It made sense to start in the [River District,] but that was never meant to be the be-all end-all of revitalization,” Schwartz said. “It’s from the success of the River District that we have the funds to now begin to spread that to other areas.”
The next area of focus will be, or perhaps already is, the North Main Street corridor, across the Dan River from the River District.
North Danville is an area with a “deep history,” Schwartz said.
Between 1894 and 1896, North Danville was a self-sustaining town called Neapolis. After 1896, it was annexed by the city, said Joe Scott, resident of North Danville and archivist at the Danville Historical Society.
There was a lot of “grand architecture” in North Danville at one point, but much of it has been torn down, said Cody Foster, another DHS archivist.
“North Danville, I would say, would have matched Main Street Millionaire’s Row as far as some of the architectural homes,” Foster said. “The quality of a lot of those structures were every bit as fine, if not finer.”
Still, the remaining Victorian homes, one of which Scott owns and lives in, are helping to increase property value in the area, Foster said.
“Property is really going up in value because the amount of great Victorian architecture out there is astounding, from small cottages to huge Victorian British mansions, and everything in between,” Foster said. “Within this side of Danville, we’re kind of running out of that commercial space. So it’s certainly a natural kind of transition for business to go right across the bridge.”
The tobacco, cotton and railroad industries were crucial to North Danville’s past, Scott said. But like the rest of Danville, and many other rural areas in Virginia, the decline of those industries resulted in economic difficulties for North Danville.
And Dan River Mills leaving was “the nail in the casket, though I hate to use that expression,” said Foster.
Now there are a lot of vacant buildings in North Danville, and especially on North Main Street. “I’ve seen some work being done, but there’s a long way to go,” Scott said.
But North Danville is an area with “huge potential,” Scott and Foster said.
“Not only for the storefronts that can be rehabbed into something more, but a lot of those storefronts have the option of living space above,” Foster said. “This opens up opportunities for people that want to invest in having a business, but don’t want to have the separate problem of owning a different house,”
And you can’t beat the view from the top of North Main Hill, he added.
“The views are spectacular,” Scott said. “You have a full view of the river going up past Union Street and all of downtown.”
The RDA will be involved in the revitalization efforts on North Main, offering some of the same resources that it offered downtown.
“Our facade program that we offer to businesses and property owners in the [River] district, that’s now available to businesses and property owners on North Main,” Schwartz said.
The RDA’s facade improvement grant program is a 1-to-1 grant dedicated to helping businesses update the outside of their buildings.
Schwartz said the RDA will also be working with existing businesses on North Main to create programming and funding, and with entrepreneurs to support people who want to start a business in the area.
“We’re at a time where, finally, for lots of different reasons, there are more resources available,” she said.
Using historic tax credits may be an option, along with other incentives from the state or local government, because North Danville is a traditionally disinvested area with majority Black and brown residents, Schwartz said.
And the city wants to retain that identity in North Danville. This revitalization effort will not make North Main an enlargement of the River District, Schwartz said.
“It’s the creation of another district with its own identity and its own flavor and its own character,” she said. “I know there’s a lot of concern around gentrification, which we absolutely have to be mindful of and discuss.”
Gentrification is more than how much rent costs, she said, although that’s certainly a part of it.
“We want to be mindful of cultural gentrification as well,” Schwartz said. “We want to ensure that residents and property owners in the neighborhood and around the commercial district have the opportunity to give input on what they feel is most important to them.”
To do this, RDA will hire an employee who will dedicate 50% of their time to working on revitalization efforts in North Danville with residents and business owners there.
There are lots of ideas about the potential of the area, but it’s important that the work reflects the wants and needs of the residents, Schwartz said.
One such idea comes from Wayne Alan, professional magician and owner of the Historic North Theater on North Main Street, who would like to see the area transformed into a theater and arts district.
Alan has a vision of sculpture gardens, murals, and mini museums, with the Historic North Theater as the centerpiece.
“I’d like to see this become a neat area that people will want to come to,” Alan said. “My intention is to have kind of comical, cute things that people will come by and want to get selfies with.”
Many of his ideas draw inspiration from existing art in places like Hollywood and Las Vegas.
Alan wants to create a local version of the Hollywood mural of movie stars sitting in a theater. It’ll include Hollywood stars, he said, but also Danville-based stars, such as Camillia Willaims, the first Black opera singer to get a regular contract with an American opera company.
“Right along the bottom of the mural, the front row will have four empty seats that will be real seats, so you can sit there and have your friends take your photo,” Alan said.
Alan also wants a sculpture garden that reflects Danville’s past and future. He said he was able to get some artifacts from the Schoolfield finishing plant that was torn down this summer to make space for the Caesars casino coming to Danville in 2024.
“I have the big horn that blew for lunchtime,” Alan said. “I want to have that with dollar bills coming out of it, and it’s going to say something along the lines of, ‘if you win the jackpot, don’t blow all the money.’”
He’s also spoken with the Neon Museum in Las Vegas, which displays old casino and neon signs. The museum is “willing to cooperate with me in the future and lend some neon pieces,” he said.
Alan said he’d like to see North Danville revitalized before the Caesars casino is finished in 2024.
“I believe we really need this in the next two years,” he said. “I don’t want the casino to open up and we’re still foundering. We need to be up and operating and a place where, when they promote Danville, they can say we have a wonderful River District, we’ve got Millionaire’s Row, we’ve got a theater and arts district. It just makes good sense.”
And rehabilitating storefronts can make a world of difference, Alan added. He’s done an “unofficial count” and there are about 50 vacant houses or vacant lots on the blocks on either side of North Main Street that could all be revitalized, he said.
He’s seen TV shows where “they redo the facade of a house and then a little bit of each of the neighbors, and it’s amazing how it would transform the whole neighborhood,” he said. And that’s the kind of thing he’d like to see in North Danville.
Lots of North Danville residents like the idea of a theater and arts district, according to Alan. He has a petition signed by over 15 business and property owners in the area supporting his idea, he said.
“I’m on board with the arts district,” said Scott of DHS, who lives in North Danville. “[The area] has been like that in the past.”
Scott lives in a 1875-built house on North Main Street that used to belong to Carson Davenport, a Danville-based artist. In the 1940s and 1950s, the house was an art gallery, Scott said.
And after that, it was owned by Charles Staubus, a renowned hair stylist who operated his hair salon out of the basement of the house from the 1980s until about 2000, Scott said.
There’s a story that Staubus did Elizabeth Taylor’s hair at his salon, Scott and Foster said. And there have been other “artsy” businesses in North Danville in the past, like floral shops, so revamping the area into a theater and arts district makes sense, the archivists said.
But Schwartz and Kelvin Perry, project manager for Danville’s economic development and tourism department, said the city wants to make sure it gives the North Danville residents what they want and need.
“[A theater and arts district] is one idea,” Perry said. “But it’s not necessarily the only idea of what the North Main Hill should be….As we move into next year, we will start making sure that we’re hearing the voice of all owners of the businesses along that corridor.”
The city is in the very beginning stages of this process, Perry said, trying to identify “who is there, what their plans are, and how we can help support their plans.”
The city has already earmarked funds to help with storefront facelifts and other projects, Perry said.
Scott said that if North Main could get even a fraction of the investment that was put into the River District, he’d be happy.
“We all have some dreams [for the area],” Scott said. “It just depends on how much cash comes in.”