Harvest invests in revitalizing uptown

November 16, 2009

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

The more development that occurs uptown, the more it could spur, The Harvest Foundation thinks.

By getting involved in uptown revitalization efforts, Harvest wants to build upon previous attempts to rejuvenate Martinsville’s central business district, “think about what still makes sense to continue” and help determine what resources are needed, said Senior Program Officer Jeffrey Mansour.

Noting that private developers such as Mervyn King and Fred Martin already have refurbished some uptown buildings they own, Mansour said that “one success hopefully will build upon another, and then build upon another.”

Harvest got involved in revitalizing uptown late last year when it announced that it will give the Virginia Local Initiatives Support Corp. (LISC) a grant totaling $955,548 over three years to establish a “community development corporation” (CDC) and prepare a development plan for uptown.

“We hope to develop a consensus vision as to what a progressive uptown looks like” and how to make that vision a reality, Mansour said of the plan.

Based in Richmond, LISC consults with community development organizations to help them form appropriate business plans, develop solid financing strategies and find appropriate human and capital resources before starting new projects, its Web site shows.

Harvest and LISC established Uptown Partners Mville, a collaboration of the Martinsville and Henry County governments, uptown business and property owners, local organizations and area residents who want to help make the business district prosper. The “Mville” sprang from the partners’ desire to have a catchy name, and it is based on Charlottesville’s “Cville” nickname, according to those involved in the partnership.

Uptown Partners is responsible for establishing the CDC and coordinating revitalization efforts, its Web site shows.

A CDC basically is a nonprofit real estate development firm, said Martinsville City Planner Susan McCullouch.

Just like a private developer, a CDC buys and develops buildings using grants and other funding. But private developers usually focus on properties that they think they will earn fast returns on investments. CDCs generally are more willing to take chances and invest in properties that might not be quick to flourish, McCullouch said.

The State Corporation Commission has legally incorporated the CDC, which will be known as Phoenix Community Development Corp., officials said.

An application for 501 (c)(3) tax-exempt status has been submitted to the Internal Revenue Service, and a board of 12 to 15 people to oversee the CDC will be formed by December, according Bob Adams, president of HD Advisors, a consulting firm working with those involved in revitalizing uptown.

People from various sectors of the community, including residents, industry and professional services, have been targeted to serve on the board, he said.

Plans are for the board to start searching for an executive director for the CDC in January and to have that person start work by March, Adams said.

The Martinsville Uptown Revitalization Association (MURA) cannot serve as the CDC because it lacks the necessary financial resources and its mission is different, said McCullouch, its former executive director.

She described MURA as “an economic development organization geared toward (attracting businesses to) the central business district.”

Plans are for the CDC to initially focus on uptown but eventually expand to develop properties throughout Martinsville and Henry County, according to Wayne Knox, the city’s director of community development.

Harvest recently loaned the city the bulk of $425,000 to buy the former Henry Hotel at the corner of Church and Broad streets for redevelopment.

And, it has shown a willingness to spend about $16 million to build a sports arena/exhibition center to host events that could bring area residents and visitors into uptown, said Lee Probst, MURA’s current director.

While that idea still is on the table, Harvest has said it is exploring whether something else might be more appropriate for uptown.

The city will apply for a state Community Development Block Grant to help revitalize uptown.

City and MURA officials said they see renewed interest in revitalization, and they think it has been spurred by Harvest’s investments.

“It builds confidence” in uptown among property owners and developers, Probst said. She added that “now we’ve got the money” to start making revitalization “come to life.”

“We didn’t always have a Harvest Foundation” to rely upon for a major insurgence of funds, Knox said.

People have begun to realize that “the city can’t do it all by itself,” said Mansour, who is overseeing Harvest’s involvement in revitalizing uptown.

However, “The Harvest Foundation can’t do it all by itself,” either — hence the creation of Uptown Partners Mville, he said.

Local leaders have realized there is “a need for collaboration” to revitalize uptown, largely due to economic frustrations, he added.

MURA is an affiliate of Virginia Main Street, a program that helps localities develop strategies to stimulate economic growth in their business districts based on their unique heritages and attributes, according to its Web site.

Doug Jackson, community development program administrator for Virginia Main Street, said “the cooperation ... of all of the different stakeholders” — including the city, Harvest, MURA and others — makes him optimistic that uptown Martinsville eventually will be significantly revitalized.

Knox said that over the years, “this community has shown that when there is a real need, we will step forward” to fill it. That is why he is confident that uptown revitalization will start progressing more rapidly, he said.

But change takes time and patience, he said, and sometimes “people want things faster” than progress can occur.


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