By Brandon Martin
Improvements to the city’s Uptown district continue to accumulate as the organization Uptown Partnership drives revitalization in the area.
Members of the organization attended the Dec. 8 Martinsville City Council meeting to discuss how the partnership is effecting change in the city.
Lee Prillaman, president of Uptown Partnership, said the non-profit originally intended to drive revitalization Uptown through the Virginia Main Street designation program.
“We did apply last year for the Virginia Main Street program. We did not achieve that in 2020,” he said. “When they told us that we did not receive that designation, the justification for it was they didn’t think that we were really ready to run the program as a successful program should be run. We need to get our legs under us a little bit more and bringing on a full-time director will help tremendously in that regard. My suggestion would be that we go for it again.”
In the meantime, the partnership has still had plenty of work to do.
“We have a little bit of a consolation prize coming out of that and that is a program called RCDI (Rural Community Development Initiative),” Prillaman said.
He said the 18– to 24–month program seeks to build organizational capacity in the community as well as provide support and professional assistance.
“When we look at a lot of the activities that this program has in it, it’s really a lot of the same that would be done under designation” under the Virginia Main Street program, Prillaman said. “I think we will get a lot of the same support from the state. Part of our job is to reach out to other organizations in the community and kind of pull everybody in and work collaboratively on these things.”
Natalie Hodge, vice-president of Uptown Partnership, described the RCDI program as “very intense. We have monthly webinars that we attend and training. We’ve gone through market analysis where we break down the assets in the community and we are figuring out ways to maximize what we do on our main street program.”
One way of maximizing the program would be to increase the district’s walkability, according to Hodge.
“Zillow has a walkability score, and we score not as well as we would like to,” she said. “That walkability score is all about what a resident would need to do to be able to run errands throughout the day without having to use a car. So dry cleaning, convenience stores or anything that I might need,” but must use a vehicle to access “decreases the walkability score.”
Hodge said the partnership is working with other community stakeholders to attract businesses to increase the district’s walkability score.
Prillaman said the partnership looks to focus on community living, attracting businesses and services, and creating venues to promote artisan project creation.
“We know Martinsville-Henry County has a housing shortage. We need more units available for our workforce,” he said. “Attracting businesses to support the residents of Uptown is important. The folks that live here don’t really have everything they need to live Uptown, so we need to work on expanding that and making Uptown living much better.”
Some of the data needed to make these changes could be obtained through a research study, Prillaman said.
He added that the study would project 10-15 years into the future and focus on “what we think (Uptown) could look like. If we don’t have something where we can go out of the community and say, ‘this is what we are trying to build,’ it’s hard to bring it to life.”
Some other items the partnership looks to address are traffic flow and entry into the district.
“If you aren’t impressed as you are entering, you may not bother to drive all the way through,” Prillaman said.
Wayne Draper, discussed some of the developments at The TAD Space on E. Church Street.
“The TAD Space is a collaborative opportunity,” Draper said. “Inside of the TAD Space, we have a lot of different opportunities where you can come sit in our ‘hot seats.’ You can sit down and collaborate with another individual. We have about 3 or 4 meeting spaces already established, and some virtual centers. It provides opportunities to brainstorm with fellow entrepreneurs.”
Draper said a goal of the center is to promote further exploration throughout the city.
“One of the things we want to encourage inside of the TAD Space is activity,” Draper said. “We want people to move around from Hugo’s to the TAD Space to crossing over the street to Shindigs.”
Draper said he often visits other small communities like Mt. Airy and Eden, N.C.
“When I look at some of these smaller communities, I can see our city surpassing their level of activities downtown,” he said.
Draper said the TAD Space has a capacity of 220 people but there is room for expansion.
“Phase III of our project is expanding out onto the 3rd floor as well as the basement area,” he added. “On the 3rd floor, we have about 26 offices up there.”
Some other improvements in conjunction with Uptown Partnership have been in beautification.
“There is a lot of facade work that has been going on and we really want to highlight that,” Hodge said. “Anything that we can do to enhance the presentation of Uptown is so critically important. As visitors and residents are moving through the Uptown space, having beautiful buildings and having great window areas for displays is so important for how we market the community.”
Tammy Pearson, council member-elect and owner of Shindig, discussed recent facade improvements made to the restaurant.
“We don’t have space right now for any type of patio. With COVID, we knew we needed some type of open-air concept, so we traveled to a lot of cities and saw this type of garage door open-air concept,” Pearson said. “We are not only looking at it as an open-air concept but also as something unique to draw people to Uptown. On some of the warm days, our customers love sitting there by the open door.”
Moving forward, Hodge emphasized the continued need for promotion of the city.
“We have a website, a Facebook page, and our goal is to continue to promote businesses and activities,” she said. “We are really gearing up, so people know about what is going on and they understand the value of our Uptown area. When we are communicating about what we are doing as property owners and business owners, we can best support everyone in the community.”
City Manager Leon Towarnicki said the partnership is crucial to further development of the city.
“I think the timing of this is absolutely on spot,” he said. “We are starting to see some renovation activities occur and finally take off in the Uptown area. There is a renewed buzz about things that are happening here in Martinsville. This certainly brings some well-needed energy to the concept of redeveloping and getting Martinsville’s Uptown back to where it should be.”
The city appears to be in a good position for some of those redevelopment projects based on data from the city’s fiscal year (FY) 2020 audit.
Michael Lupton, certified public accountant with Robinson Farmer Cox Associates, presented the findings from the audit.
“In our opinion on the FY2020 financial statements, it is an unmodified opinion. That is a clean opinion,” Lupton said. “Essentially, what that means is the financial statements are fairly stated and all material aspects in accordance with generally accepted accounting principles.”
The general governmental funds are approximately $13 million in assets, $2.7 million in liabilities, $1.8 million in inflow of revenue related to property taxes, and an $8.55 million fund balance at the end of the fiscal year.
“This $8.5 million fund balance is mostly comprised of non-spendable fund balances that are already committed to certain ventures,” Lupton said.
Following the explanation of the audit, city council unanimously approved a transfer of $250,000 from the general fund to the capital fund to address needed capital purchases.
“We had some emergency work that we’ve had to do at the Sheriff’s Department with the roof,” Towarnicki said. “We’ve got several police vehicles” such as trucks used for recycling “that need to be replaced. Looking at the audit information, we feel comfortable making that recommendation and we feel it is something we can absorb within the finances of the city.”
Towarnicki said the city was in a good financial situation, considering some of the initial fear brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.
“We basically shut down. We quit spending,” Towarnicki said. “I think that is reflected in what you see with all of our expenditures being down. Consequently, when you look at the summary statements in the audit document on the fund balances, they are actually up. The numbers weren’t quite as bad as everyone expected, and the city is in pretty good shape.”
In other matters presented, city council:
*Recognized city employees eligible for service awards for the period Oct. 1-Dec. 31, 2020. Those named were: Alan Walker and Travis Thompson for five years with the Sheriff’s Department. Joseph Washburn for 15 years with the Police Department. Mary Kay Washington for 15 years with the Finance Department. Timothy Gary and James Cooper for 20 years with the Sheriff’s Department. Betty Wagoner for 25 years with the Circuit Court. Ashby Pritchett for 35 years with the Circuit Court. Durwin Joyce for 35 years with the Electric Department and Chief Eddie Cassady for 35 years with the Police Department.
*Adopted on second reading, Ordinance 2020-6, adding the Juvenile Domestic Relations Court to Section 1-16 of the City Code regarding charging courthouse security fees.
*Heard information from City Attorney Eric Monday regarding historic tax credits and how they can be used to assist with financing on development projects.
*Approved projects for the City’s 2021 Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) list.
*Adopted the city’s 2021 Legislative Agenda. City Council added two items to the list. The first was to ask the General Assembly to give localities more discretion over marijuana sales. The second was to ask legislators to change Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day.