After a contentious meeting last month that included prominent uptown property owner Tim Martin walking out of the room, declaring, “I’m done,” the fourth and final Uptown community engagement session on recommendations for revitalizing Martinsville’s uptown area, which Martin did not attend, was a notably more positive event.
The structure of the final scheduled engagement session was different than those which came before it. Previously, Uptown Partnership (UP) Executive Director Kathy Deacon did the brunt of the speaking and facilitating engagement with the group, but this time took a step back, leaving the running of the meeting to members of the UP board who were on hand to facilitate small group discussions related to UP’s various committees: promotions (headed up by board chairman Liz Harris), design (with Rob King), organization (with Beverly Pitzer Lyle), and economic vitality (facilitated Derrick Ziglar.)
The meetings were held to allow community members the opportunity to learn about and react to a visioning plan and study completed by the Richmond-based consulting firm Downtown Economics. Throughout the four sessions, attendees offered their perspectives on various recommendations (some positive, others negative) and offered suggestions.
During the final session, board members shared information about the work of each committee and facilitated brainstorming sessions, encouraging the public to share their thoughts about existing recommendations, or making other recommendations. Those in attendance had the opportunity either to rotate between groups to contribute to several topics, switching every 15 minutes, or stay with one committee discussion for the duration of the meeting, depending on their range of interest.
For about an hour, the UP office was a din of noise as an estimated 30 people discussed topics of interest in small groups.
In one small group, facilitated by Lyle, Bryan Gravely discussed the importance of involving local churches with UP to help keep residents informed about the work of the organization, saying those venues would be a free but effective way to market UP and its goals.
Brandon Martin offered that schools are another good way to share information with a broad range of people, and further suggested the organization build better relationships with the media and well as use partnerships with other nonprofits.
In Ziglar’s economic vitality group, while some participants rotated in and out, Harvest Foundation Executive Director Kate Keller and Martinsville Director of Community Development Mark McCaskill remained for the duration of the meeting.
At one point, Ziglar discussed creating an inventory of spaces in the uptown area to help connect businesses with available offices in uptown. Ziglar, McCaskill, and Keller discussed combining the efforts of UP and the city to create a comprehensive list of uptown spaces.
Someone else, who identified themselves only as Will, inquired whether the city kept a list of people who were delinquent real estate taxes, to which McCaskill replied that the Treasurer kept such information.
Will said he previously did work in Richmond, where he found that “delinquent real estate taxes were an incredibly effective way of leveraging property owners who may not want to be involved, but shame is a really good tool for development as well as if you want to keep a nasty storefront, then it looks like you might be going to auction.”
McCaskill said city council recently authorized the hiring of a tax collection organization to help collect delinquent taxes.
“That’s timely, because I think a specialist is already getting started,” he said. However, he noted that “the owners we all have in mind but we’re not mentioning by name, I get the sense that they have actually paid their taxes.”
Behind Ziglar was a collection of post-it notes, covered with other recommendations connected to economic vitality. The notes had been collected over the course of the community meetings, with more added that day. Among the notes were several requests for electric vehicle charging stations, more uptown residential opportunities, and two-way streets.
One note stated, “force building owners to fix old buildings or sale (sic) to new investors so we can put diverse restaurants and shops in uptown.” Written on another was “we need high quality bars and restaurants.”
Another collection of notes related to the work of the promotions committee and included several suggestions to bring back the Rives Theatre or another music venue, create more performance opportunities for a younger demographic, a request for live music every weekend in uptown, a desire for events geared toward highlighting or attracting different ethnic groups, and a suggestion for more nighttime social opportunities.
At the end of the small group discussions, attendees gathered together to reflect on the meeting.
“Did you learn something, or did you hear something new today,” Harris asked.
“It’s nice to know that I’m not the only one who wants to see Martinsville grow,” one woman said. “I thought I was alone in that.”
“You’re not alone,” Harris responded.
Travis Hundley, who, along with his wife, Mandi Jo, is preparing to open The Wellness Bar in uptown said that he grew up in Martinsville, left, and moved back.
“When I moved back, Uptown looked the same,” he said. “It’s time to revitalize. We’ve got a new generation of people coming up, and if we want to get people in there, they’ve got to pick it. But they won’t. I would love to see my hometown come back to life.”
Mandi Jo said she felt discouraged at the last few UP community engagement meetings she attended because “I felt like I’m an outsider and these people were like, ‘I’ve been here this many years and my opinion matters more than yours’ and coming here today and hearing what people are saying and feeling the warm welcome that we got is really appreciated. I just wanted to say that this is home for me and we’re going to do something good for the community.”
Barbara Parker said she was encouraged to see that so many in attendance “feel like the arts is something that can really be a powerful tool at revitalizing uptown,” particularly with the use of murals and updates to facades which attract people. “This really isn’t an attractive place, and I’ve been here 25 years. I know not a lot has changed in 25 years, but this is the most enthusiasm I’ve seen from people who want to make this a better place. It’s happened in other communities and there’s no reason it can’t happen here. We just have to be the strong people because there will always be naysayers, but we can do this if we share that enthusiasm, and we all work towards a common goal.”
Harris asked if anyone heard any ideas mentioned during their discussions that were new or that had never occurred to them.
Among mentions of an ice cream shop and various spaces for the creation of public art, King said someone in one of his groups mentioned green spaces on rooftops, which elicited an audibly positive reaction from nearly everyone in the room.
Ouss Sahhar said that the meeting generated many good ideas, with lots of discussion and involvement. “Let’s follow through,” he urged. “Let’s not drop the ball. The ball’s been dropped before. We’re here to make a difference. Let’s move forward and follow through.”
“What comes next,” asked Natalie Hodge.
“If there is a committee that speaks to you, get signed up,” Harris said. “Our team will be collecting all this feedback and conversation (gathered over the course of the four meetings), packaging it up, and building out next steps,” including the creation of a steering committee to being selecting and prioritizing projects.
“We have a smaller group of individuals that genuinely care,” Ziglar said. “But there is a larger group of people that care as well. They’re just waiting to see the action start. It’s us that can get this thing rolling and once the ball is rolling down the hill, it picks up speed. It starts with a small group of people like this that genuinely care and aren’t afraid of putting in the work.”
“This is your work,” Deacon told the group. “We’re just facilitating it.”
In a marked change from the previous three sessions, several people at the final meeting signed up to serve on committees. Harris said she recruited two new members for her promotions committee, while Ziglar said he also found a member for his economic vitality committee. At the end of the session, one man declared his intention to serve on the design committee.
Anyone interested in getting involved with UP can contact Deacon at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on UP’s activities, visit Uptown Partnership on Facebook or www.martinsvilleUP.com.