New Harvest director asks 'How successful do we want to be?'

Richard Killingsworth is the new executive director of The Harvest Foundation (photo: Martinsville Bulletin)

April 29, 2007

By AMANDA BUCK - Bulletin Staff Writer

Richard Killingsworth, the new executive director of The Harvest Foundation, wants to help Henry County and Martinsville rebound from years of factory closings and job losses.

But Killingsworth isn't just thinking about success. He is thinking beyond that, to the challenges success can bring.

"I think people get so focused on ‘Wow, we're really flunking out here'" that they do not plan for what will happen when success arrives, he said.

The question, Killingsworth said, is "once we move through this - not if - how successful do we want to become?"

For a community such as Martinsville, that might seem like a question for another, brighter time. Not so, Killingsworth says.

Areas that grow too rapidly often face problems such as traffic congestion, pollution and loss of natural resources. Killingsworth cited Gwinnett County, Ga., an area just outside Atlanta that has experienced rapid development, as an example. It now is known as one of the most paved counties in America, he said.

When growth becomes urban sprawl, "you lose the quality of life you've come to appreciate and value," Killingsworth said.

Quality of life is one of the primary reasons Killingsworth, who has visited 300 communities across the nation in the course of previous jobs, was attracted to Martinsville. He was hired by The Harvest Foundation board of directors on Feb. 2, began working for the foundation five days later, by commuting, and settled in to his office here March 24.

During that time, Killingsworth, who most recently was program director for the Ruth Mott Foundation in Flint, Mich., has reviewed policies and become familiar with the challenges and opportunities this area faces.

Though he did not discount the hardships many area residents are experiencing, he said it sometimes is easy for people to forget all the positive things they have.

For Henry County and Martinsville, which Killingsworth called "a gem," those things are natural resources, human capital, the lack of traffic congestion and air pollution, access to downtown and growing educational opportunities.

To preserve those things while also bringing economic prosperity, city and county leaders must work together, he said. One of the most important ways they can do that is by planning for land use.

Currently, the city and county "are lacking very basic plans," he said. Comprehensive planning would help the area mark out land use and other factors, particularly downtown. There, planners should consider whether they want the area to be oriented on a pedestrian or an automobile scale, Killingsworth said.

Of course, before the area can worry about the headaches caused by too much growth, that growth has to start happening. One of the most high-profile ways Harvest will work toward that is through the soccer complex it is funding in Henry County and an arena to be built in Martinsville. Although those structures will be important, Killingsworth said that $20 million in projects are only two pieces of a larger effort aimed at making this area a destination.

"That's one thing I'll push: To make Martinsville an experience," he said. "It's not just building places here and there. It's to form a culture where people will say ‘wow'" and want to come back.

Killingsworth would like to see factors such as good customer service, no litter, low crime and friendly people, combined with attractions such as the arena and soccer complex, become signature points of the area.

Other attractions, including the new Virginia Museum of Natural History, Piedmont Arts Association and the New College Institute, could serve the same role.

Killingsworth's ideas don't stop there. He also wants to look for ways to entice young people to stay in the area and to attract young families to move here. One possibility would be offering college scholarships to students who graduate from the area's public schools and pledge to stay here or in the state.

That plan has worked in Kalamazoo, Mich., Killingsworth said. There, local graduates are given scholarships to any state school.

"It becomes a recruitment tool for the young," he said, and simultaneously encourages education.

Revitalizing the uptown and creating areas where young people could meet and hang out, such as restaurants, coffee shops and other places that stay open past 5 o'clock, would make the area more attractive, Killingsworth said.

Leadership development programs for children and adults, work force development and training, health care, education ... all of those things will revitalize the area. But what Henry County and Martinsville decide to do - and how they decide to do it - will not be up to him or to Harvest, he said.

"Our (the area) new niche will be something completely different than what we are now," Killingsworth said. "I don't know what that is. It will be up to the people to decide."

Those decisions, and the success they aim for, will not happen overnight. The key is to take what Killingsworth called a "30,000-foot view" - to look at challenges with a long view and to work over time toward transformation.

For Harvest, the first step is refining its mission and vision for the area, Killingsworth said. Although he stressed that those decisions will be up to the foundation's 13-member board, he said he will offer advice and guidance.

To do that, he will meet with local officials, business leaders and members of organizations to assess their thoughts and feelings. He hopes to have those initial discussions wrapped up by the beginning of May.

After that, Killingsworth plans to meet with civic groups and others to get the input of area residents on the issues that concern them. He wants to include youth and talk to "the population that has been untapped" by having open meetings in places where people are comfortable, not just routine places such as the municipal building.

"When you really have a diversity of thinking like that, it really gives you a true pulse of the community," Killingsworth said. People can voice their ideas and "feel a part of the process of growing communities."

The key to all of it, Killingsworth said, will be collaboration - between civic groups, businesses and city and county governments.

Henry County and Martinsville are "like a body," Killingsworth said. All the parts must work together, or the body won't survive.


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