March 22, 2012
By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer
Survey and environmental crews soon will start inspecting the Baldwin Block uptown as part of a needs assessment for the New College Institute, the city announced in a news release Wednesday.
The assessment is intended to “help the community understand ... what makes sense for NCI’s needs” if the institute ever is able to put a building there, said NCI Executive Director William Wampler.
It is possible that NCI would let the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp. have offices in the building, Wampler said.
The city owns the block, which is bounded by Fayette, Market, West Church and Moss streets. It is named for the late African-American physician Dr. Dana O. Baldwin, a prominent local business and philanthropic leader whose offices once were there.
Interim City Manager Leon Towarnicki said the inspection, which is to be completed later this spring, is “a necessary first step in determining what (type of development) may ultimately occur on this block.”
Despite interest by NCI and the EDC, “the city will consider all proposals for future development of the site,” and area residents will be able to give their opinions on what should be built there, Towarnicki said in the release.
The city welcomes proposals from developers, according to Director of Community Development Wayne Knox.
In November 2010, Harvest scrapped plans to build an arena complex on the block after the project was determined to be unsustainable without a large sum of taxpayer dollars or funds from the foundation.
Being able to develop any site and maintain what is built there “all boils down to money,” Knox said.
NCI is interested in using at least part of the block, said Associate Director and Chief Academic Officer Leanna Blevins.
“If NCI is given the opportunity to build a new facility, we would like to grow around the current campus we’ve established in uptown Martinsville,” Blevins said. “The Baldwin Block would be a great location for us to grow.”
Right now, “it’s really the only green space uptown,” she said.
NCI is “anticipating and planning for growth” among its academic programs and student body, Blevins said. But the need for a new building could be at least several years away, she said.
The assessment will be funded jointly by the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission and The Harvest Foundation, each of which contributed $200,000, Wampler said. Those funds were announced several months ago.
Allyson Rothrock, executive director of Harvest, called the Baldwin Block “a prime piece of property” uptown.
Rothrock noted that discussions on how to revitalize the central business district are ongoing among the city and interested parties. Except for an arena or an NCI building, though, she has heard no uses proposed for the Baldwin Block.
“We are interested in anything that could transform the community,” she said of the interested parties.
Knox said no definite proposals have been presented to him or his staff.
If a developer was to make a firm proposal to Martinsville City Council for a use other than an NCI building, city officials probably would consult with the institute before giving the developer the go-ahead, Knox said, because they “hold NCI in high regard.”
In the short term, he said, the city is exploring ways to improve the area around the block and other “gateways” to uptown, such as intersections nearby. Ideas include new crosswalks, decorative signs and sculptures.
With such amenities, the block “would be more welcoming and look better than it does” now, he said.
He emphasized that some amenities eventually will be installed with funds from Harvest and a Community Development Block Grant.
In recent years, the city spent more than $700,000 to upgrade the nearby strip of West Church Street between Market Street and Memorial Boulevard, plus about $1.25 million to improve the nearby Moss-Barton neighborhood. Most of the money came from block grants, according to Knox.
Improvements to West Church included clearing some properties that are to be redeveloped and improving the looks of some buildings. Moss and Barton streets were improved with new water lines, curbs and gutters, and dilapidated homes were either rehabilitated or replaced, Knox said.
Upgrading the appearance of nearby areas could make the Baldwin Block more appealing to a developer, he said.
“We’re still hopeful” the block eventually will be developed, he added.
The city would sell or possibly donate the property.
“If we own it, we can’t tax it” to generate revenue for the city, Knox said.
He did not immediately know how much the entire block is worth because it technically consists of several tracts.
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