History at the Helm

September 1, 2005

Preservation Magazine - September/October 2005
By Michele Schwartz

Preservation steers plan to aid Martinsville, Va.

Set in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Martinsville, Va., calls itself "a city without limits," and the Trust thinks so, too, in launching a program designed to help residents create a better economic future by tapping into their rich historical past.

The Martinsville and Henry County Rural Heritage Development Initiative, a three-year project headed by the southern field office (SFO), is building preservation-based strategies for commercial rejuvenation and cultural tourism in the region. The goal is to concentrate the best of the Trust's abilities in partnership with local organizations to discover which ideas work best for revitalizing Martinsville and nearby communities.

Following an assessment of local conditions and historic assets that the Trust completed last October, the program officially began in May with the hiring of project manager Deepa Sanyal. "How do you bring classic preservation, Main Street revitalization, and heritage tourism to one place at one time?" asks SFO Director Robert Nieweg. To find the answer, Nieweg and Sanyal are working with such groups as the Martinsville Uptown Revitalization Association, the Fayette Area Historical Initiative, and the Southern Environmental Law Center. "This is a very integrated project, pulling together all the interests of the Trust," says Sanyal.

For years, the prosperous factories and mills that dot the hills of Henry County were the backbone of the region's economy, producing textiles and furniture for households throughout the country. Economic downturns, however, have shrunk local industries and raised unemployment figures. The Trust is helping Martinsville leaders find ways to improve the economy by, for example, renewing commercial development in Uptown, the historic central business district, focusing on the needs of local entrepreneurs, and attracting new businesses that serve residents as well as bring in visitors. The Trust conducted a retail market analysis this summer to help define the ideal business mix.

Perhaps no other structure embodies local spirit more than the Henry County Courthouse, a red-brick building set in a square surrounded by Uptown storefronts. The building, whose core dates to 1824, served as the county seat until 1996, when a new courthouse was built. For years it was where residents went to pay taxes, pick up marriage licenses, or just stroll the square, according to Debbie Hall, president of the Martinsville Henry County Historical Society. Now vacant, with floors buckling and plaster falling, the courthouse is undergoing restoration, including removal of late-1920s annexes. "It's not the center of the community anymore," says Nieweg, "and it should be and will be." The restored structure may be used as a local history museum or as space for community events.

The initiative, which ultimately could serve as a model for towns nationwide, is funded by $500,000 in grants from the Harvest Foundation of the Piedmont and the Public Welfare Foundation. Those involved believe Henry County shows potential for positive change. For Hall, a Martinsville native, the project has inspired new hope. "The Trust brings to the table resources we weren't even aware of or had access to," says Hall. "It has the expertise, and we have the drive and desire."


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