By Brandon Martin
A Collinsville man is throwing his hat in the fray for the November election, and pursuing a childhood dream.
Andrew Palmer, a Collinsville native, said he will seek the district’s seat on the Henry County Board of Supervisors against incumbent Joe Bryant, who plans to seek another term.
“I recall when I was in the Boy Scouts and I had to do my citizenship for the community badge, one of the requirements was you had to attend a city council or board of supervisors meeting,” Palmer said.
“When I went to that meeting then, I said, ‘one day, I’m going to run for the Board of Supervisors,’” Palmer, 29, said. “It’s been on my mind since I was about 13 years old. I think I’ve always been kind of politically motivated.”
Between classes at Bassett High School and Patrick Henry Community College from 2008-2013, Palmer ran his own business, Palmer’s Golf Cart Sales and Services on Figsboro Road.
Following his early business ventures, he decided to become a franchisee of the Sears hometown store in Collinsville.
“I was the local franchisee from December 2013 until December 2016. I got to meet a lot of people in the Collinsville District that way,” he said.
Currently, Palmer works for the Lester Group to attract businesses to real estate in the area. He also serves as president of the Martinsville-Henry County (MHC) Lions Club.
“We provide eyeglasses for people that cannot afford them,” Palmer said. “We raise funds by selling brooms, radio ads, and if someone is unfortunate and cannot afford a pair of glasses, we refer them to an eye physician and we pay for an exam and a pair of glasses for them.”
While he said he respects current supervisor members, he thinks some new blood would be beneficial. If elected, Palmer would be the youngest member on the board by 11 years, second to Ryan Zehr, of Ridgeway.
“The Board of Supervisors tend to vote in favor of whatever the county administrator puts in front of them. Every meeting you go to, they all vote 6-0, 6-0, 6-0,” Palmer said. “I think there should be more debate. There should be more discussion and there should be more opinions being shared. Especially if you are working on taxpayer’s money being spent. I don’t think you should always have a clawing match, but I think having some discussions is a good thing.”
Palmer said he had discussions with some of the current supervisors, including sitting Collinsville representative Joe Bryant, before announcing his run.
“I picked up my packet last Tuesday, Jan. 5, and I’ve got about 50 signatures already,” Palmer said. “I’ve got to have 125 and I want to get it done by the end of January,” even though the actual deadline isn’t until June 11. Palmer said he wants to “go ahead and get it done early.”
Early voting was another factor Palmer considered.
“I’m assuming early voting is probably going to be a factor this fall. I thought that it was better to get my name out sooner than later,” Palmer said.
To garner the number of necessary signatures, Palmer will focus on the issues he believes are most pressing in the coming years.
“After I joined the Lester Group in 2017, I got involved with the local economic development and property leasing. I think there are some things that can be changed in the county to make business easier for people,” Palmer said. “I think being someone that has worked for themselves, who has run a business–I’ve got rental property, I’ve got real estate, I buy houses, I rent them, I sell them–I would look at being on the Board of Supervisors just like I’m running a business. I would want to take my experience and run the county the same way.”
According to Palmer, the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp. (EDC) could benefit from rethinking priorities.
“Mark Heath and the EDC do a good job on trying to attract large manufacturing facilities. I give them credit there,” Palmer said, but added he thinks the agency needs to prioritize “retail, restaurants and small shop businesses.”
For instance, when he initially franchised Sears, Palmer said the EDC wished him well but was unable to provide more assistance.
“They were nice and basically said that they were glad I was doing it, but there was nothing else they could really do for me,” Palmer said.
The agency’s job, he said, “is to look for the large manufacturing facilities or industrial facilities that’s going to add more revenue to the tax base of Henry County. The problem is the majority of the United States is built on small businesses. I think the EDC should be more business-friendly to not only the industrial and commercial but retail, restaurants and small shops.”
To attract more people to the area, Palmer wants to see more housing development.
“There hasn’t been anybody that has built a new sub-division. The last one was probably Farmingdale about 20 years ago,” he said. “We need new housing. People in the millennial generation don’t really want the single–family house, with a yard to mow and get trash hauled off. They want something like a Homeowner Association. They want townhomes. They want to be able to do maintenance. They want a dumpster onsite and a single car garage to go in. We need more appealing housing for our generation.”
By primarily focusing on housing and small business creation, Palmer thinks large manufacturers will later focus on those demographics.
“In order to get a large manufacturer, they want to see where an employee is going to live, eat, and shop,” he said. “In my opinion, if you can push residential development, retail, and restaurants, then the bigger ones will come. That would be where I think we need to change our path a little bit.”
Another project that could spur economic development is the extension of Interstate 73 from North Carolina.
“We need to talk to our state legislators and congressmen to get I-73 a reality,” Palmer said. “If you look at any large city or town that’s got good employment, good jobs–they’ve got an airport and an interstate. Martinsville-Henry County doesn’t have either one.”
During property negotiations, Palmer said land purchasers evaluate “how many people live here; how many people pass by that property in a day; what the average income is; where the closest interstate is and where the closest airport is.”
While the county does have the Blue Ridge Airport, he said “getting I-73 coming through will be a huge factor to bringing more jobs automatically.
“Look at what North Carolina has done for I-73. We’ve been talking about doing this since the late 80s. It’s been 30 years. I don’t think Northern Virginia is going to give us too much money, but we need it,” he added.
Relations with Northern Virginia
In his capacity as a supervisor, Palmer said he would reach out to legislators to be more included in the finances come budget season.
“It does seem like the Virginia legislators tend to vote and pass and give the money to the larger populated areas,” Palmer said. “That makes sense because there are more people, but the people in Martinsville-Henry County built those cities of Richmond and in Northern Virginia when we were the powerhouse in revenue from our textile and wood manufacturing that took place all the way up to the end of the 1990s. Sometimes I feel like we are left behind.”
Locally, Palmer thinks the purse strings could be tightened.
“I think there is a lot of wasteful spending,” he said. “We took on a big debt load with the new jail and new school. It’s my understanding that there is land around the jail that the county owns. I don’t see why they couldn’t have renovated the existing jail and built onto it, using the same location right beside the courthouse, versus putting it down at the old DuPont facility.”
While he acknowledges the need for more space in the jail, Palmer said the land of the former DuPont facility could have been used for another project.
“I understand they donated the land, or we bought some land, but I didn’t understand why the current jail couldn’t have been renovated, brought up to code, and expanded,” Palmer said. “What’s the plan when the new jail is built? What are they going to do with the old one?”
With the new debts, Palmer sees another looming financial consideration.
“Then, the city reverting to a town is going to make it even worse,” he said.
Palmer said if he were on the board in 2019, when the city officially announced their intent to revert, he would have been quicker to act to prevent a full reversion.
“I was disappointed when the mayor, Kathy Lawson, mailed two letters to the Henry County Board of Supervisors asking to meet to have a joint session to discuss the possible reversion of the City of Martinsville,” he said.
“All they wanted was to get together, talk and maybe find a common ground to avert going down the reversion path. It is my understanding that the county would never respond to the letter. The Board of Supervisors” took a wait and see stance in response.
“I think if someone from the board would have been willing to sit down with the city council, maybe reversion could have been diverted,” he said.
Given his relationship with city officials and leaders, Palmer believes he would have been able to find common ground without the city reverting.
“Maybe the county could absorb the city school system and leave everything else the same way,” he said. “I feel with my position at the Lester Group, with the amount of real estate holdings that we have in the city, I feel like I’ve built a pretty good relationship with the city officials and a couple of members on the city council. I’d like to work with them. That’s something I’ll bring to the board that’s not there now.”
While taking on the biggest debt items would have been costly, Palmer thinks the consequence of a full reversion would be worse, and he fears city annexation of county land.
“That’s the city’s plan,” he said. “A lot of residents don’t realize this, but they are going to be paying two real estate tax tickets. One to Henry County and one to the Town of Martinsville. That is job killing. If a business could relocate somewhere else in the county without having to pay double taxes, they probably would. I would.”
Palmer thinks the city and county can work together to solve connectivity issues.
“There’s got to be advantages of consolidating the school systems,” he said. “In the county, the internet is a problem. The city has MiNet. The biggest hindrance the county has had is not being able to provide internet services to all the students in the county.”
Palmer believes the county missed out on the initial investment of MiNet.
According to Palmer, bridging that connectivity gap could be an area of partnership in the future, if his voice is on the board.
“That may be something that takes place in the reversion process,” he said. “We are stronger together. I think the county should work with the city to expand that into the county. The county just renewed a contract with Comcast. We either need to be working with them or the city to expand broadband into the county.”