By Callie Hietala
Chuck D’Aprix is having a love affair.
“And that love affair is with the City of Martinsville,” D’Aprix said at the recent kickoff for the Martinsville Uptown Partnership’s Community Visioning project.
The event, held at the TAD Space in Uptown Martinsville on August 12, introduced the consulting team leading the project to an audience of around 100 people and discussed the visioning process, which seeks to elicit input from the community about the future of Uptown.
“We’re going to come up with an implementable action plan, a vision that everybody can buy into,” said D’Aprix. “And that’s because we’re going to spend a lot of time out in the community asking questions.”
D’Aprix and his team of consultants are leading the visioning effort, which is funded by the Harvest Foundation. A nationally renowned expert in downtown and community revitalization, D’Aprix manages two consulting firms, Downtown Economics and Community Engagement and Charrette Associates (CE&CA). According to the CE&CA website, D’Aprix has consulted in more than 300 communities across the country and has served on the design assistance teams for the American Institute of Architects and as a leader for Main Street Resource teams.
Veronica Fleming and Cheryl Groce-Wright, D’Aprix’s partners at CE&CA, also attended the kickoff. Both have long histories with community engagement and development.
According to the CE&CA website, Fleming was the Senior Program Officer at Virginia Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), where she led the Building Sustainable Communities Initiative. More recently, she worked with Richmond, VA’s Storefront for Community Design where she “employed an array of engagement tools, securing community and stakeholder input to determine the highest and best use for an abandoned bank building.”
Groce-Wright is the founder and CEO of Kaleidoscope Collaborative RVA in Richmond, a consulting firm “serving as a proactive and effective champion for racial equity, empowered communities and inspired citizens.”
“We as a team are committed to hearing your voices and really making your voice a part of what the visioning plan will look like,” said Groce-Wright at the kickoff event. “Citizen-driven is the key to how we’re going about this.”
“Our feeling is that the west side and the African American community was not as engaged as it should have been” in previous studies, said D’Aprix in an interview with Henry County Enterprise. “We feel as though we have an obligation to the community to reach deep into neighborhoods that have previously been left out of the process.”
As part of that effort to reach deep into the community, volunteers gathered on August 14 to begin the process of distributing door hangers with survey questions about Uptown printed on them. The eventual goal is to put a hanger on the door of every residence in Martinsville.
These surveys can be filled out and left at one of several drop boxes placed at the corners of Fayette and Massey streets, Fayette and High streets, and Bridge and Church streets. The survey also can be completed online at VisionUptown.com. A confidential phone line with a voicemail box is also available for citizens to leave their thoughts and suggestions. It can be accessed by calling (276) 212-1828.
Already, the volume of survey responses has been “far better than we expected,” said D’Aprix. “The energy around this is unlike anything I’ve seen. . . There is a serious energy around people wanting to say, ‘this is what we need.’”
“Toward the end of September, we’ll be having large community meetings to really tell you what we’re learning,” Groce-Wright said. At these meetings, the team will “begin to outline what kinds of changes might be possible” with the aid of visuals such as maps. They will then invite further community input.
The consulting team wants to emphasize that this visioning process will not result in, as D’Aprix put it, “just another study.”
“I think that people feel Uptown has been studied to death,” said D’Aprix. A video screened at the kickoff event showed that at least six studies have been done on Uptown between 1993 and 2015, but little to no action has been taken based on those studies.
“We’re here to do a study, but most importantly, an implementation plan and a vision. We’re not report writers,” D’Aprix said. “We’re vision-capturers, and that vision comes from the community.”
D’Aprix and his team expect to issue a final report around November “but it’ll be in the form of a video using local folks explaining what we found because the energy comes from you all, not a consultant. So, I’m here to capture that energy and put together a pretty good vision for the future.”
In addition to helping create a vision for Uptown, the team also intends to identify some funding sources to help Martinsville move toward achieving that vision.
D’Aprix sees a lot of opportunity in Martinsville.
“The architecture and the sense of history are really marketable assets,” he said.
The support of the Harvest Foundation, which funded operations of the Uptown Partnership for two years along with the community visioning project, and having Jeff Sadler, the former statewide coordinator for the Virginia Main Street Program, on board as the city’s Housing and Revitalization Coordinator (a position also funded with support from Harvest), are helping keep the energy around revitalization alive.
“Having Jeff in town, that is something I think every community under 20,000 would love to have,” D’Aprix said.
There are, of course, challenges. Two-way streets through the Uptown “should be on the table and getting the community to recognize that there are so many available places for a business” are two issues D’Aprix sees. “Some building upkeep is something that can be addressed.”
Even with those challenges, D’Aprix is hopeful for Martinsville, in large part because of the team that has come together to support Uptown Partnership and the consultants.
“I am amazed at how quickly this new nonprofit (Uptown Partnership) has coalesced and created a sense of energy around Uptown. That’s almost unheard of.” He said the Partnership is “a nonprofit that is about to change the face of Uptown.”
He emphasized that the community visioning project isn’t just one more study.
“This is a vision and implementation plan,” he said. A plan that, perhaps, could even serve as a model for what other communities can replicate. “We’re at the precipice of great things.”
He related a story, “I was standing outside the Walmart for two days this week doing interviews with people. There was a woman in her late 80s and I asked about uptown, and she looked me square in the eye and she said, ‘It can be done. It’s ready. All the pieces are there.’ I took great faith in that, and I expect going forward, you’re gonna see a lot more changes. The energy is here. The people are here. We just need to hear from you.”
Kathy Deacon, director of Uptown Partnership, summed up the goal during her welcome at the visioning kickoff.
“Show up. Share your voice. Share your vision for what this community needs,” she said. “Because the vision for the community does not come from Up, does not come from the city, it doesn’t come from any of the other organizations. The vision for this community is yours.”