October 22, 2012
By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer
A new upscale apartment/office building planned uptown is needed, but it could take years for the complex to be fully successful, Martinsville officials said Friday.
Its success hinges somewhat on growth of the New College Institute (NCI) and the development of a planned medical school, said Interim City Manager Leon Towarnicki and Community Development Director Wayne Knox.
Based on progress those schools already have made, “I have no doubt” the building is needed and ultimately will be successful, Towarnicki said.
“You have to look at it long-term,” said Knox. “Two to three years? No. You have to look a decade” into the future.
The Phoenix Community Development Corp., a nonprofit developer involved in uptown revitalization efforts, announced plans for the three-story, roughly 35,000-square-foot building last week. It is proposed for the site of a city-owned parking lot on Fayette Street in an area targeted for revitalization. New public parking areas would be developed behind the structure.
The Martinsville Henry County Coalition for Health and Wellness is to move into the building. Preliminary plans call for the building to have office spaces and 28 to 30 “luxury apartments” renting for an average of about $650 a month, according to Phoenix President and CEO Ray Gibbs.
Gibbs has said a market study shows the need for apartments at that price point in Martinsville, despite high local unemployment rates and large percentages of people receiving public assistance funds.
“There’s more (people) locally than you’d think” who can afford such rents, Knox said.
“It would stand to reason that it (the project) would not move forward if there was not a demand for it,” said Towarnicki, who is on Phoenix’s board.
The medical school is to be developed in a former supermarket building next door to the parking lot. NCI is planning to build its first new structure on the vacant Baldwin Block down the street.
Gibbs and the city officials think the apartments could attract students and instructors at the institute and medical school as well as young professionals and retirees wanting to downsize from houses to reduce their costs of living.
Could college students, for instance, afford to rent an apartment there?
“If they could get two or three folks sharing an apartment, it’s conceivable,” Towarnicki said.
He noted that apartments already developed on upstairs floors of buildings uptown are renting for about the same price proposed for the new building.
The building can be successful “if it is heavily and wisely marketed,” Knox said.
But “it would be a little bit difficult” to market it now, he admitted, due to a lack of amenities — such as a drug store, general merchandise store or full-fledged grocery store — that could help attract people to live uptown.
“A lot of amentities are not there yet, but they’re coming,” he predicted, as the schools attract more students and instructors who would patronize the stores and other retail businesses there.
Knox said the city is working with owners of businesses near the site of the proposed building to improve their firms’ facades.
But “in a lot of cases, it’s been difficult” for them to find the funds required to match money the city can put toward the improvements, he said.
After the new building is built, if the current owners of nearby buildings are not able to afford improvements, they may decide to sell the structures to other people with the necessary means, Knox said.
In rejuvenating uptown, the new building is “going to be a place-changer once it’s built,” Knox said. “It’s going to impact everything around it.”
Design plans for the building, estimated to cost about $5 million, are to be developed if financing can be arranged and the city conveys the property to Phoenix, according to officials with the organization.
Gibbs has said Phoenix will seek loans and tax credits to cover the cost.
Barbara Jackman, executive director of the health and wellness coalition, said she thinks her group’s plans to be the main tenant will help Phoenix in arranging the financing.
“We’re hopeful that other organizations that partner with us in various work we’re doing will co-locate with us” in the building, Jackman said.
One partner she mentioned is Smart Beginnings, a coalition of 18 entities that provide services for young children, parents and child-care providers.
By having as many entities as possible under one roof, it will keep people who need multiple services from having to drive around town to be served, Jackman said.
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