City eyes upgrades to infrastructure, blighted properties

Janet Jonas briefs members of Martinsville City Council on improvements to properties in the Pine Hall Road area during a March 10 meeting.

By Brandon Martin
After months of consideration with the city’s electric power supply consultant GDS Associates, Inc.,
members of Martinsville City Council approved a project concept that would add solar power to the city’s energy sector to supplement the city’s ongoing power supply needs.
Garrett Cole, of GDS, said that there is additional value from having solar power added to the city’s electrical system as opposed to just buying solar power from the open market.
According to Cole, the prices for solar energy were around $100 per megawatt-hour, a term used when discussing energy output. Based on information from the Freeing Energy Project, one megawatt-hour can power an average American home for 1.2 months and power an electric vehicle 3,600 miles.
“As we’ve progressed and see the technology improve, you see that in 2017 the prices were down in the 60s and in 2020 we are now seeing an option that is down in the 40s,” he said. “We’ve progressively watched solar prices get better and in addition we have access for some federal subsidy for our project.”
Capacity and power transmission were among some of the costly aspects of the current power supply that solar energy could help alleviate.
“Unfortunately, transmission costs that we pay for AEP’s access to the transmission system have increased and so this type of project, behind-the-meter on our system, can help avoid some of those higher cost pieces that we would have to rely on from the market,” Cole said.

Garrett Cole presented information on implementing a solar project into the city’s energy portfolio.

An example of a behind-the-meter system is where the power from solar panels is fed into the main electrical panel and from there goes to the utility grid, or to be used in the homes/buildings. It is connected before the customer’s meter.
Cole said that electricity is a transmission dependent utility that uses American Electric Power’s (AEP’s) system and the city pays transmission rights for that access. The city also has to acquire enough capacity to meet the peak summer demand which also comes at a cost.
“We’ve been seeing an aggressive climb in transmission costs that we are subject to,” he added. “It is increasing our desire to have an investment that might offset the type of transmission costs that we are paying here.”
Before taking into account the amount that would be saved on just the energy price, Cole said the city would be able to secure around $40 per megawatt-hour in just avoiding paying for capacity and transmission costs. He added that by eliminating this cost, the city could be looking at paying $5 per megawatt-hour.
Cole also said that adding solar power would account for about 15 percent of total energy requirements that would be off-grid.
He addressed potential shortfalls of the plan as well such as if a regulation that allowed for the city to be on hook for 50 percent of the transmission and capacity costs.
“Even if it’s 50 percent, our net energy price over 25 years is about $24 per megawatt-hour and that’s still less than the net energy price that we would pay from the market,” he said. “We would still be in the position of having great, low-cost power for a significant number of years.”
Out of the 26 interested developers, the city has narrowed the number down to three companies that will potentially get the bid. If approved, the project is planned to start during the second fiscal quarter of 2021 with Lynwood Golf Course as the planned location.
Whichever developer is chosen will take ownership of the property and materials used while the city would negotiate a purchase-power arrangement.
Council member Danny Turner proposed an amendment to the original motion to move forward with the concept that would allow for a public hearing on whatever contract is decided upon for the purchase-power agreement.
The city also passed a resolution authorizing staff to take all necessary actions to issue bonds for construction and equipping of repairs and renovations to the spillway at the Beaver Creek Reservoir Dam.
The anticipated maximum principal amount of the bonds is approximately $2 million, and the city will apply for one or more loans from the Virginia Clean Water Revolving Loan Fund or the Virginia Water Facilities Revolving Loan Fund. The financing arrangement will be administered through the Virginia Resource Authority.
In addition to action on infrastructure needs, city officials also moved forward at their March 10 meeting with two items pertaining to revitalization.
The first is conducting a public hearing for a Community Development Block Grant (CBDG) application for the area around Pine Hall Road. The project would address improvement needs and assist property owners in the area with upgrades to their respective residences.
Janet Jonas, who is heading the project, said that the city is competing for $4.65 million in open submission funds that are being distributed by the Department of Housing and Community Development.
This area has yet to see any focused revitalization after an application to the Department of Housing and Community Development failed last year. The city is currently pursuing a second CDGB application to help fund the revitalization.
According to Jonas, the primary goal in the revitalization is making sure the residences are “safe, warm and dry.” The current plan is to rehabilitate six to eight owner-occupied houses and to reconstruct five to seven owner-occupied residences. There are also plans to assist five to eight investor-owned properties.
In addition to housing, the city plans on making milling and paving improvements to streets on W. Fayette, Pine Hall, Top, Marshall, King’s Row, North and Wray. There will also be T-style turnarounds added on Wray Street and Pine Hall Road to help with maneuverability in the areas.

Broadband expansion is still on the table to provide on-street capacity for all homes in the project area through the city’s internet service MiNet. Jonas said this is still in the planning stages though and may not be included in the final proposal.
“It may be too big of a lift for us to accomplish by the end of the year, but because of some things like user-agreements, I’m afraid we may not have enough time to accomplish it. But we are going to give it a try,” Jonas said.
Another phase of the project is demolition and clearance. Jonas said six to eight abandoned structures that are currently in disrepair may require demo work.
“One of the requirements of these projects is that they address as much or all of the slum and blight that is in the neighborhood,” she said. “It does improve living conditions. It’s a concern for everyone.”
After the demolition, there is potential for the properties to be repurposed by the property owners, according to Jonas.
The project’s preliminary budget looks to use $1.54 million of CDGB funds and $506,000 non-CDGB funds — which includes funds like the City General Fund Street Fund, waived fees, investor-owner contributions and other grants.
The council also adopted a resolution that would allow the group Uptown Partnership to reapply for a Virginia Main Street designation.

Lee Prillaman introduces plans by his group, Uptown Partnership, to become designated as a Virginia Main Street during a March 10 meeting of Martinsville City Council.

Lee Prillaman represented the group at the meeting and provided an overview of their mission and plan of action.
“For the last five or six months, we’ve had a group of people uptown meeting periodically to talk about a vision of uptown,” he said. “It’s a great mix of residents, business owners, business operators, some of the non-profits. We’ve been trying to figure out what a vibrant uptown district would look like. In most cases, we’ve talked about it being the cool place that you can live, work, dine, gather, hang out, walk your dog and all those things you see in other communities.”
If the state approves the designation, the city would receive resources designated specifically for renovating the Uptown district.
“Looking at some of the other communities that are Main Street participants, you can visit those locations and see that they have utilized their historic assets,” Prillaman said. “They are creating jobs, keeping jobs, increasing tax revenues, creating a vibrant environment and really bringing a lot of pride back to their community.”
There are currently 26 designated Main Street communities and 90 affiliated ones. According to Prillaman, “you get a lot more as a designated community than you do as an affiliated one. Affiliate, my impression is that they kind of respond to you when you ask, but if you get the designated status then they are in the boat with us.”

Uptown Partnership plans to work with the city and local business owners to improve facades, traffic and pedestrian flow, and to connect private investors with appropriate development opportunities.
In other matters, the council:
*Authorized the City Treasurer to issue a refund of $84,066 to a local bank resulting from amended bank franchise tax returns for years 2012-2014.

Council member Jim Woods presented a resolution to Ralph Lawson recognizing March as Red Cross Month.

*Recognized March as Red Cross Month and Women’s History Month.
*Adopted a resolution allowing for the donation of land on Aaron Street to Landmark Property Management for development of the property for housing. In a related action, the council also recessed and convened as a land bank authority to approve the donation.
*Appointed James Barnett and Benjamin Sharpe to the Board of Zoning Appeals; Richard Bowker to the Henry County-Martinsville Joint Social Services Board; Benjamin Williams and Jay Dickens were appointed to the Tree Board.



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