By Callie Hietala
One of Martinsville’s most historic structures, the 1929 Chief Tassel building at 51 East Church Street, has found a new life. The structure now holds 21 single-bedroom apartments, two commercial office spaces, and it is nearly ready to welcome tenants.
Waukeshaw Development, which spearheaded the project, celebrated the nearly completed renovations on the building with a grand opening and ribbon cutting last week.
“This kind of project serves as a vehicle for revitalizing Uptown and spurring economic development,” said Uptown Partnership’s director, Kathy Deacon. “Some of the project’s benefits include historic revitalization, enhancing Uptown’s unique identity and vitality, and providing additional, much needed housing.”
“This is really an exciting day for Martinsville and Henry County,” said Mark Heath, president and CEO of the Economic Development Corp. (EDC). “Housing is a critical component in the EDC’s effort to recruit not only new companies, but to help work with our existing companies. As we speak, several of our major employers are in the marketplace trying to find temporary and long-term housing for their employees.”
City Council member Danny Turner recalled his experience with the building. When he was 6-years-old, Turner said “I lost a filling,” and visited a dentist who had an office in the building.
The dentist “didn’t like small kids, and he didn’t have the latest in Novocain, so I had a bad experience here, but after that, this has been a great building,” Turner said, to laughter from the crowd.
City Manager Leon Towarnicki shared a similar memory.
When he was a teenager, his dentist also operated in the building. “And I remember vividly sitting in the chair and looking out the window while pain was being inflicted,” he joked.
“There are a handful of buildings around the uptown area that you recognize by name,” he said, naming the Henry Hotel, the old Henry County Courthouse, and the Globman building as examples. “The Chief Tassel Building is certainly one of those buildings.”
Five to 10 years ago, the building began to fall into disrepair, Towarnicki said. The Frith family donated the building to the city, and “that put us in the position to be able to move forward with redevelopment.”
The city ultimately enlisted Waukeshaw, which also renovated the Henry Hotel several years ago.
Towarnicki said Dave McCormack, president of Waukeshaw, “was a prudent developer with a good track record, a lot of experience dealing with older buildings like this, and this was right up his alley.”
The city obtained a brownfield grant to help clean up some of the asbestos and other environmental issues of the building. Then, the pandemic hit, which slowed the project down. Eventually, it made it to the finish line, he said.
“We’re tickled to death, because this is just another step in what we’re all trying to do to revitalize Uptown Martinsville,” Towarnicki said, adding other projects are in the works. “This is just another step and another piece in the journey, and we’re gonna get there.”
McCormack recalled looking across the street at the building while his company was renovating the Henry Hotel, now The Henry, and realizing how much potential it had.
The project, he said, would not have worked without the help of the city.
“I think about all the help Leon has given us, it’s been really thoughtful and progressive.” He also thanked Martinsville-Henry County Housing and Revitalization Director Jeff Sadler, the EDC, and Building and Zoning Administrator Kris Bridges for “making the project so easy” and helping it come together successfully. “It really is a team effort,” he said.
While working on The Henry, McCormack said the leasing agent doubted they could get what he was hoping for in rent.
“Now we have a full building over here. It’s really thriving, and we actually had an unsolicited offer to buy it the other day,” he said. Though there are no plans to sell, “that was an incredible vote of confidence in Martinsville to have outside investors looking at this as a viable place to invest.”
Those attending the ceremony explored the 4-story building, wandering in and out of apartments, admiring the views from the top floors and the homages to the building’s history. Realtors from Rives Brown Real Estate, which is tasked with handling rentals, were positioned on each level to answer questions.
Gina Ashbrook, an agent with the firm, said of the 21 single-bedroom units in the building, 10 will be furnished. Rental rates for the property range from $975 per month for an unfurnished first floor apartment to $1,450 per month for a furnished fourth-floor space. Pricing varies between floors, and furnished spaces cost $400 more than their unfurnished counterparts. She said water, sewer, trash, and internet all are included in the cost.
One company has rented a furnished unit already, and another is looking to place four or five of their employees there, she said.
In addition to a more traditional long-term lease, short-term rentals also are available, she said, adding those opportunities currently are difficult to find.
Standing in the first-floor lobby of the building, next to a window that looked out onto East Church Street, McCormack elaborated on his company and the project.
“Our company does a lot of work in small towns and cities like Martinsville, so we’re in lots of places like this across the state, particularly in Southside and Southwest Virginia,” he said. The reason for that is because there is “a niche in going into unproven markets, and also working with municipalities to solve problems.”
While a typical developer might try to buy a building from a private resident, “invest a bunch of money and move on, we are trying to set the market, which is a very different thing.” To do that, “we do need the help of a municipality, and they enjoy the help of a seasoned developer to create that environment. If we can do that successfully,” others will invest in the area as well, McCormack said.
“Every time we come to a building, we try really hard to retain all the historic fabric” of the structure, he said. Evidence of that is littered throughout the building, from the arched entryways in the first floor commercial spaces, the aged wooden stalls that still stand in the otherwise-modernized public restroom, and even some apartment spaces that retained the original fold-out tables tucked into the walls, now encased in glass. The tubs, now refurbished, are the historic steel tubs original to the building, he said.
McCormack said the company took advantage of historic tax credits which made the $3 million project work, bringing the cost “back down to where it’s actually financeable, because that’s more money that it’s really worth or that the rents justify. What we do is we make that investment, spend more money than is justifiable, and then sell the credits to bring it back down to reality. You cannot overstate the importance of the tax credit program in this state and at the federal level. To small cities like Martinsville, it’s really, really critical.
“Doing real estate development on old historic buildings in small towns like this, it’s an unusual thing,” he said. “We’re in business to make money, but what drives us here is the history and the community and all those things. When a project really comes together like this at the end, it’s really an emotional thing, and we all share in that together as a community. It means a lot to us. That’s really why we do what we do, and I feel that very strongly here in Martinsville.”
Those interested in renting an apartment in the Chief Tassel Building may call Rives Brown Rentals at (276) 635-5225.