By Callie Heitala
Kathy Deacon wants to make some magic happen in Martinsville.
As the new director of the city’s Uptown Partnership, Deacon is tasked with transforming Uptown into a place that people want to live, work, and play.
“I’d been through Martinsville,” Deacon said, “but I’d never found a reason to stop. And that was one of the big things that got me excited about taking the position—finding and creating reasons for folks to stop. That could be kind of my life work, my dream.”
Before coming to Martinsville, Deacon was the founder and CEO of Co-Creative Consulting, LLC. She moved from the Washington, D.C. area to Staunton, Virginia, to be closer to family and became deeply involved with the community there, eventually becoming the Executive Director of the Staunton Creative Community Fund, a microlender focusing on helping build up small businesses.
When Uptown Partnership began its search for a director, a board member sent Deacon the job description in hopes that she might know some suitable candidates. She applied herself. After a lengthy interview process, Deacon began her new role in May.
Deacon saw potential in Martinsville as she learned the history of the city.
It flourished first around the tobacco industry and when that industry began to fail in the area, the city reinvented itself, finding success in the furniture and textile factories that moved in. Martinsville, Deacon said, is resilient. And it’s time for yet another reinvention.
“When you’ve turned the corner one time, you can do it again,” she added.
To help turn that corner, the Uptown Partnership worked with the Main Street Organization to identify specific transformation strategies, all aimed at that goal of encouraging people to live, work, and play in the city.
Housing is a big priority, particularly making sure housing is available to citizens from all income levels. Currently, the former BB&T building and the Chief Tassel building are under renovation, both as mixed-use spaces with apartments on the upper floors and retail space on the bottom.
“We want to make sure that, strategically, we recruit or try to retain business that will support the residents—things like coffee shops, bakeries, dry cleaners, business support centers…, farm-to-table food, a boutique grocery…, things that people want when they’re living here.”
Part of that strategy is to work with current building owners to improve their spaces because, as Deacon noted, “people want to live where it’s beautiful.”
Some Uptown structures have fallen into disrepair, with problems ranging from outdated décor and tattered awnings to more serious interior damage. The Uptown Partnership aims to provide incentives for improvements and repairs which will make the buildings more attractive to potential developers and entrepreneurs to create what Deacon calls “sticky spaces— places that draw people here and make them want to sit and stay for a while.”
Uptown Partnership is already at work developing one of these sticky spaces.
Recently, a group of community volunteers power washed and cleaned the alleyway connecting Bridge and Walnut Streets, located behind The Ground Floor. This alleyway will be one of the Partnership’s flagship transformation projects. Eventually, the alley will become a gathering place, complete with tables, chairs, planters, and string lights. Perhaps, if funding allows, even move uniform pavement and a mural. The Partnership is working with Martinsville native Courtney Yellock, who won a number of prizes for his artwork from Piedmont Arts during his high school days, to create renderings for the new public gathering space.
In addition, the city obtained a grant from the Department of Housing and Community Development to do an assessment of the warehouse space on Depot Street. Structural and environmental assessments have been completed with a market demand study to follow soon which will assess the potential to develop an artisan center in that space. If studies suggest an artisan center is not the right fit for the community, Deacon is prepared to adjust course and welcome new ideas.
“If not an artisan center, then what,” she asked.
Deacon wants to make sure the community has a voice in all the potential changes to Uptown.
The Uptown Partnership received an initial grant from the Harvest Foundation to sustain operations for two years as well as fund a citizen-driven community visioning project, which recently launched.
The project will allow the community to share what they love, what they want to see change, and what challenges and opportunities they believe exist in Martinsville. A door hanger will be placed at the property of each Martinsville resident informing them of upcoming community meetings and online surveys to ensure that each citizen who wants to participate can do so.
Of course, Uptown revitalization comes with some challenges, and getting property owners on board is one of them. Deacon wants to encourage those owners to make their spaces more move-in ready for potential new businesses.
“Even more than just filling up (these buildings) is figuring out how to work with the property owners to ensure that they understand the importance of having not just a functional city but a beautiful one,” she said.
Another challenge is the city’s history.
“This community has been through a lot of trauma, historically,” Deacon said, and cited the city’s origins in the tobacco industry, built around slave labor, as a trauma. After the loss of that industry, the city rebuilt itself around furniture and textiles.
“Then, after the NAFTA agreement was signed, having that industry move overseas, that has certainly been another trauma,” Deacon said.
Even previous aborted efforts to revitalize the city have had lingering effects, she said.
“There have been lots and lots of studies, but even the implementation of those studies has been stalled which is another trauma,” Deacon said, but she hopes to break that cycle.
She sees hope in Martinsville’s future, which, she says, must happen whether the city reverts to a town.
“Whether one is for reversion or not for reversion, Uptown and Martinsville and Henry County are a hub and it’s an important time regardless of whether reversion happens or doesn’t, the revitalization still has to take place here in order to create opportunity not just here, but in Henry County,” she said.
“Our hope is that all the parties now are coming together and recognizing that the status quo is not going to work anymore. That we’re actually going to need to do something for Martinsville, and particularly Uptown, to become a relevant area at a time that’s so rich with opportunity,” Deacon said. “Our hope is that we and the other partners in the community can be a hope-spark igniter and get people to be a part of the healing process that needs to take place so that hope actually can spring forward.”