NCI key to revitalizing uptown, candidates say

April 19, 2010

The New College Institute (NCI) has an important role in efforts to revitalize uptown, Martinsville City Council candidates in the May 4 election agree.

The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia is expected to decide in 2012 whether NCI, which provides local access to courses needed to earn degrees conferred by Virginia universities, should evolve into a university itself, or at least a branch campus of an existing university.

There has been discussion of erecting a new building for NCI in the Dana O. Baldwin block bordering West Church, Fayette, Moss and Market streets.

The city has applied for $707,813 in Community Development Block Grant funds from the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) to use toward revitalizing the central business district.

Funds would be used to improve the appearance of buildings on Fayette Street, improve lighting and landscaping on the street, enhance Courthouse Square and improve the beginning of the uptown walking trail and the NCI parking lot on Franklin Street, officials have said.

Also, the city has bought the former Henry Hotel and plans to redevelop it, and the Phoenix Community Development Corp. is being established to help develop real estate, not just uptown but throughout Martinsville and Henry County.

The three council candidates, incumbents Kathy Lawson and Gene Teague plus challenger Kim Adkins, were asked “How should Martinsville go about revitalizing the uptown business district?”

Here are their responses:

Kim Adkins

“The city council and city administration is going about it (revitalizing the district) the right way” by getting The Harvest Foundation involved, using consultants and “gauging people’s opinions as much as possible,” such as through focus groups, Adkins said.

“They’re making a very inclusive effort to get input” from people involved in different aspects of the community, she said.

She added that revitalization will not occur overnight.

Because NCI’s growth will be “a critical element” of uptown revitalization, “the No. 1 priority for the city” should be convincing the state to turn the institute into a university, said Adkins.

She said she envisions “a campus integrated into the uptown area” amid businesses that are of interest to students as well as other people, such as restaurants, boutiques, clothing stores and book stores.

As NCI lures more and more students and employees, she said, “the more appealing it will be for people to open up establishments” in the district.

Uptown revitalization will not stop if NCI does not become a university, said Adkins. She mentioned, for example, that developers increasingly seem to be taking interest in the district due to the historic character of its buildings.

Still, Adkins said revitalizing uptown “shouldn’t be thought of as an either/or proposition” in terms of NCI’s involvement. Regardless of how it evolves in the future, the institute will have a major role in efforts to lure people uptown, she said.

Kathy Lawson

“The plan (to revitalize uptown) is coming along nicely” with input from various segments of the community, said Lawson, the current mayor.

But revitalization will take time, she emphasized.

“I do feel that NCI will be an integral part of uptown revitalization” because it already is an important contributor to the district’s economy, Lawson said.

For instance, she said a coffee shop near NCI receives a lot of its business from the institute’s students.

"I have full faith” that NCI will continue to grow and “be given full university status,” she said.

Lawson added that she would like to see more eateries uptown, including “another full-menu restaurant” similar to Rania’s, as well as “something structured around breakfast and lunch.”

The latter, she said, would be “a niche restaurant ... very different from what’s there ... yet (something that) complements what’s there” now.

Gene Teague

“We need to continue to try and make uptown a destination point for the community” as it historically has been, Teague said.

To do that, he said, the district must have businesses that attract people from throughout the area, not just students.

NCI will be “a vital part” of revitalization, Teague said, as “one part (of the process) to help uptown grow.”

He said, however, that he does not think how the institute evolves will be the sole factor determining the outcome of revitalization efforts.

“We need to work on all facets” of revitalization, including improving the facades of buildings and removing blight from the landscape, Teague said.

He added that the city needs to create economic incentives to encourage businesses to upgrade the appearances of their structures.

It will be important to develop residences uptown so people will already be in the district to take advantage of businesses that locate there, said Teague.

If people are able to live upstairs in some current buildings, there will be businesses “right beneath you” to visit, he said.

Like the other candidates, Teague thinks revitalization will take a while to accomplish.

“Much of the improvements will be incremental over time,” he said.


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