Martinsville Uptown Partnership (UP) held the first in a series of community engagement conversations on Monday to start discussions and gather input on the many recommendations made by Chuck D’Aprix and his company, Downtown Economics, on revitalization efforts.
The meeting, held at the TAD Space in uptown, drew a crowd of around 60 people. The conversations around a revitalization effort mobilized a diverse cross-section of the community. Chairs were filled with people of varying backgrounds, age ranges, and ethnicities, as well as business owners, several city council members, and representatives from Patrick & Henry Community College, the Dan River Basin Association, Harvest, the Martinsville-Henry County Historical Society, and other institutions.
The discussion ranged widely over the course of about an hour and a half, touching on both positives and negatives of the revitalization and of Martinsville itself.
UP Board President Liz Harris welcomed the crowd and discussed the steps UP has taken thus far, including reviewing the four main tenants of the Main Street approach, which, she said, guides the work of the organization.
UP’s Executive Director, Kathy Deacon, then reviewed some of the recommendations, continually emphasizing that nothing is set in stone. “Anything you’ll see tonight are just ideas of what could be possible,” she told the crowd.
In addition to the committees that are currently part of UP, a steering committee will be created to help drive the decision-making process as to what the community wants to see take place as revitalization moves forward, Deacon said.
Aaron Rawls, a local business owner, was among the first to speak. He challenged one of the findings presented in Downtown Economics’ study, which determined that there is a need in Martinsville for social connection and places to gather.
“Do we feel like there are opportunities that are lacking for people to gather and have social connection?” he asked. Others spoke about the need they saw for more diversity in the types of gathering spaces in uptown.
Rob King, who is on UP’s board of directors, said, “we need people and organizations in the community to create opportunities for engagement, but we need business owners, we need the community to create places that are appropriate for that engagement, like the one we’re sitting in right now.”
He noted that the city has not recently spent a good deal of money on its parks. “We had community involvement, like the skateboard park when kids raised $150,000 to build a skateboard park, that is used … and that was community involvement, not city involvement. And the truth is, the city needs to pony up and spend some money to make this place where people want to come.”
Industries that are trying to attract employees to the area are facing difficulty because of a lack of opportunities for social engagement uptown, he said. “I don’t have a brewery; I don’t have a pool hall. Whatever the social engagement is, whatever the people are looking for, that’s what we want uptown.”
Martinsville Vice Mayor Jennifer Bowles, who said she was attending the meeting as a resident of Martinsville’s west end, said one of the focal points of the community-driven revisioning survey (part of Downtown Economics’ data collection) for some of those she spoke with and for herself was about the need for more diverse options and opportunities for the community to gather. An event like Rooster Walk, she said, while hugely popular, might not appeal to all music lovers or all parts of the community, some of whom, for example, may prefer R&B to rock music.
“I wrote the need for social connection and places that are more diverse and inclusive,” she said.
Cary Smith, who works with Hairston Funeral Home, said that revitalization seems to stop at the corner of Market at Fayette Streets. Just across Market Street, on the other side of Fayette, “we don’t’ see improvement.”
Deacon said that one of the bigger recommendations provided was to pay more attention to that corridor.
Heather Blankenbaker said, “I hear you talking a lot about community engagement and I want to know what that looks like specifically, because outside of word of mouth, I wouldn’t have even known about this meeting tonight. I hear you talk about surveys and all that, that’s great, but how are you really reaching 13,000 residents in Martinsville? Are we utilizing social media to get the word out about these meetings? Are we using social media for these surveys so the community is aware of the decisions being made?”
She added that, particularly with younger crowds that aren’t as inclined to pick up a newspaper, alternative methods must be used to spread the word.
Deacon said UP’s Facebook page increased from 50 to 1,800 followers since May of last year. “We are trying to get the word out,” she said, and asked those in the room to help spread the word as well.
“It’s your responsibility to make sure that every single person that you come in contact with knows there are opportunities for your voices to be heard in this community,” Deacon said.
Scott Norman, who noted that his family has been in the area for nearly 200 years, said he “tripped over this meeting.” He pointed out that there were only nine business owners he knew of in the audience. “There are dozens of us that have spent our lives trying to make Martinsville a better place,” he said, and added that there were many others who have done the same. “We’ve got to get the word out to those people … these old guard people who have been here for all of these years, we’ve got to get it out here to the people who have been breaking a sweat,” he said to applause from the crowd.
Brian Gravely, who said he was born and raised locally, referenced previous discussions in city council meetings about whether the city should use some its American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding to purchase properties in uptown. “A lot of people say that’s rewarding bad tenants, but I think it’s critical” that the city buy the buildings and “get them in the hands of investors” to help provide some of the diversity of gathering places mentioned previously.
“With the limited buildings, and the old guard controlling who gets in certain things, eliminates certain people wanting to engage in uptown,” he said.
Dr. Mervyn King, who said he came to Martinsville in 1964, also took issue with some of uptown’s property owners. He said he decided to get into real estate development in the early 2000s.
“Every building I have is ready today. Why can’t other developers do this if I can do it? Why can’t they be successful,” King asked.
He added that, just around courthouse square (which he renovated), “three buildings are basically falling down. No one will do anything with them. You can advertise all you want to get all these people in town. Is there a building ready now for somebody to come to town to start a business? I don’t think there is.”
He said those property owners who allow buildings to fall into disrepair should be financially penalized for their delinquent care. “Why doesn’t the city do anything about it?” he asked.
As an investor, Eric Phillips said he was frustrated at the lack of investment opportunities he found in uptown and suggested the creation of an investors’ group.
Referencing earlier comments from those who complained they had not heard about the meeting, he said, “If you care about your community, you put forth a little effort. I make a conscious effort to be involved in the things that I care about.”
Tim Martin, a property owner in uptown, said that, though he and his family are “all for the work,” he did “have many issues with this overall personally, and my family does as well as a lot of my colleagues.”
Deacon noted an issue she was having to get property owners engaged. She said that as UP moved forward on renovating the Bridge Street alleyway behind the Holt Building, she reached out many times to the owners who have buildings that abut the alley, “and we get no response. We want to move forward, we know that the property owners have to be included, but you guys have to be engaged as well.”
“I think I’m quite engaged,” Martin replied. “I want to make it clear, we are open to change and I think we proved it … we’ve rented over 30 buildings, and I want to continue to do so. And yes, I run it like a business. I am so sorry if I don’t appease everybody.”
Jeff Porter, who said he came to Martinsville in 1986 to work at Patrick & Henry Community College and now owns property in uptown, spoke to the need for positivity. “When all the factories closed, you couldn’t give away property in uptown,” he said. “It’s important to know how far we have come. There’s work to be done and improvements to be made. I think we have to look at all the hard work that property owners in particular have put in.”
DeShanta Hairston, owner of Books and Crannies, said that she feels there is often a certain amount of pushback and even fear in the community when someone tries to do something new, and specifically referenced her shop’s recent “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” drive thru event. She said there is a need to make sure the growth in the city was not “growth we’ve already seen” in Martinsville. “When we’re no longer here, we need Martinsville to continue to thrive, so we need things that will keep (people) here” to carry on the work,” she said.
Other topics of discussion touched on one person’s view that Market Street acting as a divider between “two very different parts of the community,” the need for more youth-friendly options in the uptown area, including places for teens and young adults to spend time, the need to make adjacent neighborhoods more connected, and the issue of where funding for the revitalization effort would come from, and in what amount.
Deacon replied that the organization could not come up with a budget until the community decides what to prioritize in terms of revitalization, noting that the night’s conversation marked the beginning of the decision-making process.
Despite rumors, “Uptown Partnership has never walked into the city’s office and asked or lobbied for any of that ARPA funding. We were invited into a conversation.” She added that the Harvest Foundation has funded the organization through the end of December, but that funding does not include money for projects.
The event, Deacon said “is just the beginning of what we will all explore together.”
The remaining community conversations are scheduled for Thursday, April 28 from 12-1:30 p.m., Wednesday, May 11 from 6-7:30 p.m., and Saturday, June 4 from 1-2:30 p.m. Locations for the meetings have yet to be determined. In an email to the event attendees, Deacon wrote that the PowerPoint presentation and the full vision plan created by Downtown Economics would be available on UP’s website by the end of the week. To stay up to date with the meeting announcements, find Martinsville UP on Facebook or visit MartinsvilleUP.com.