With changes coming from casino, residents get a peek at ideas for Schoolfield district plan

James Adams and his family used to work at Dan River Inc.

The Danville resident is excited about the changes coming to the Schoolfield area, including the Caesars Virginia casino and possible ideas from a district plan being developed by a Pennsylvania firm.

“It’s very much needed, if that’s what it takes to bring life back to the community,” Adams said during an open house on the plan Thursday evening at the former Dan River Inc. Welfare Building in Schoolfield.

WRT, an urban planning and design and architecture firm in Philadelphia, is conducting a district plan that includes a Schoolfield master plan, a Schoolfield neighborhood plan and a Main Street corridor plan.

The first two Schoolfield plans under the district plan umbrella cover the Dan River Inc. historic site and associated properties and the Schoolfield residential neighborhood, or former Mill Village area.

The two Schoolfield plans will focus on how to use existing historic assets next to the upcoming Caesars Virginia casino site, and making improvements to enhance the health and well-being of residents, repair and revitalize existing residential and commercial assets and provide better access to amenities, according to WRT.

As for the Main Street corridor plan, it will cover West Main Street from the North Carolina line all the way through Main Street to the River District, along with the adjacent parcels along the corridor.

“This element will propose strategies to strengthen the linkage between the River District and the Schoolfield District and establish ‘gateways’ to welcome visitors and residents into the city,” according to WRT.

Some of the two dozen ideas for amenities — resulting from a mixture of input from residents and WRT analysis — include a shuttle between the North Carolina line and the River District, a Main Street town square, street art and/or outdoor art gallery, a cultural park, a multimodal boulevard with car, transit, pedestrian and bicycle access, a boutique hotel and museum highlighting Schoolfield, and numerous other features.

Before a casino was proposed at Schoolfield, WRT was conducting a Schoolfield master plan to possibly turn the former industrial site into a mixed-use campus.

But the proposed casino and voter approval of the idea in November 2020 changed that, prompting the firm and city officials to shift the focus outside of the 85-acre Schoolfield site’s footprint.

So three elements came to be included in a broader endeavor.

“The whole thing is being combined into a district plan,” said Mary Morton, associate urban designer and planner and project manager with WRT.

Closer look

Thursday evening’s event at the Welfare Building included diagrams set up inside and outside the building where residents could take a look at the firm’s analysis of the three areas and input on what improvements they would like to see in Schoolfield and along the corridor from the North Carolina line to the River District downtown.

WRT’s work identified several themes and goals for the Schoolfield area and Main Street corridor, including:

  • Character and identity: Preserve and celebrate the history and legacy of Schoolfield and create welcoming gateways into the community;
  • Ecology and open space: Enhance existing open and natural spaces and find opportunities to create new spaces for recreation, habitat and respite;
  • Community: Create a community-supported vision for the future that centers equity and inclusion in the process, recommendations and implementation;
  • Housing and economic development: Combat displacement and identify equitable and inclusive revitalization and development opportunities that meet the needs of existing and future residents;
  • Mobility and connectivity: Emphasize Main Street as the city’s spine and create seamless multi-modal connections to the River District;
  • Infrastructure: Ensure that infrastructure including water, sewer, stormwater, power, etc. serve community needs and are sustainable.

Other amenities floated as ideas included a Schoolfield nature park and education center, community gardens, greenways connecting to parks and neighborhoods, neighborhood gathering areas include retail shops, outdoor cafes, communal housing, shopping center redevelopment and other features.

At the event Wednesday, residents were invited to leave additional ideas on red sticky notes. They included child care facilities, a homeless shelter, places for kids to play, a senior center and grocery stores.

To engage the community and gather input, WRT and the Danville Office of Economic Development held interactive events related to the district plan throughout last week in the city.

“I’ve been super impressed with how they connected with the community,” said Leslie Mantiply, project engineer with Dewberry in Danville, which is assisting WRT with the district plan. “Plans like this are only successful when you have the community to back it up.”

Morton said the purpose of Thursday’s event, which included hot dogs and beverages, was to gauge resident reaction to project ideas and get more input.

“This event is to test ideas with the community,” Morton said. “We’ve just been looking at what is possible. We’ve heard from residents and officials.”

WRT has had great conversations with the community about what they want to see for the future, Morton said.

“We’re excited about the energy the community has for Schoolfield,” she said.

Schoolfield has been deemed a state and federally recognized historic district.

The designation highlights the important role the district played in the community and opens up opportunities for developers to access historic tax credits to pursue redevelopment projects.

The Schoolfield village was founded as an independent company town in 1903 by Dan River Inc., which produced cloth for home and apparel from 1882 to 2006.

The structures built in Schoolfield included homes, stores and industrial properties.

The Caesars Virginia casino being built at the former Dan River Inc. site in Schoolfield along West Main Street is expected to be complete in 2024.

Previously, the master plan emphasized the commercial and industrial area of the site.

With Caesars Virginia expected to build the $500 million casino resort at the site, the master plan expanded from a $374,000 project to nearly $1 million worth of analysis to examine the casino’s traffic impact on the West Main Street corridor from the North Carolina line to the site, and from the Schoolfield site to the River District downtown.

Of the plan’s $973,500 cost, $360,000 will be covered by Caesars Virginia. The Danville Regional Foundation will provide $25,000. In addition, Caesars Virginia also will pay for a portion of the traffic impact part of the master plan, but the amount has not been determined.

The Danville Industrial Development Authority, the city’s land-buying arm, will cover the remaining cost of the master plan. The IDA, which sold the Schoolfield property to Caesars Virginia for $5 million, gets its money from the city of Danville, grants and federal tax credits.

As for James Adams, who worked at Dan River Inc. for a year in the early 1970s, said WRT has the same ideas in mind that he’s had. He is also a proponent of the casino.

Changes coming

“I’m for progress,” Adams said. “I thought I’d never see the day a casino would be going where the mill used to be.”

Linda Kelly, who came with Adams to Thursday’s event, said she hopes to work at Caesars Virginia.

“I want to be one of the people who cashes out the winning tickets,” Kelly said.

Kelly, who grew up in Java in Pittsylvania County and whose mother used to work at the mill, recalled laying out her mom’s clothes at night after completing her homework while she prepared to work third shift.

She said the casino will greatly improve the economy.

“I think it’s wonderful because it will be a boost to the economy,” Kelly said.

As for the district plan, community meetings were also held in October 2021. WRT had also been on the ground in the area performing site exploration, Morton said.

The next step will be to hold a celebratory event at the end of the summer and then an open house with a draft district plan, Morton said. The plan will be finalized in the fall.

“They’re going to synthesize that information and put together some recommendations on how to move forward,” said City Manager Ken Larking. “Our goal is that the Schoolfield area and the subject area that goes from U.S. 29 at North Carolina to the River District will experience the same positive transformation that the River District experienced.”