Building study sought: Phoenix wants to see potential

August 18, 2010

A local redevelopment organization aims to study the former social services building uptown to determine how it might be used in the future.

Henry County and Martinsville jointly own the building on East Church Street. Henry-Martinsville Social Services occupied the building for more than a decade before moving into the former MZM/Athena building off Clearview Drive in January.

Martinsville City Manager Clarence Monday said the county and city sought proposals for reusing the building. The only proposal received was for an assessment by the Phoenix Community Development Corp., he said.

The Harvest Foundation helped establish Phoenix in 2009 as a tool to bring together public and private resources in redeveloping local properties as part of community revitalization efforts.

Phoenix Executive Director Ray Gibbs said the organization will look at the building’s structural integrity and design in figuring out potential uses for it.

Gibbs said he envisions the 20,000-square-foot building, which is more than 70 years old, being redeveloped for multiple uses, including retail, commercial and office space.

The upstairs portions of a few uptown buildings have been turned into living quarters, and community leaders have expressed a need for more residential space in the central business district, particularly if the New College Institute evolves into a university.

But “there’s not a lot of windows” in the former social services building, Gibbs said, which “makes it difficult” to use it for living space.

Also, he said he hopes “to get the street front open again.” The building’s main entrance now is in the back of the building, adjacent to a parking lot accessible only from Bridge Street.

Monday said Martinsville City Council has endorsed Phoenix’s study of the building.

The Henry County Board of Supervisors likely will discuss Phoenix’s proposal during its Aug. 24 meeting, said County Administrator Benny Summerlin. He said he does not expect the supervisors to oppose it, but he declined to say more about the proposal before he can discuss it with the board.

Before the agency moved, social services staff and board members said the building was in disrepair. They often mentioned problems such as window leaks, plaster falling off walls and a rotting restroom floor.

Gibbs said he recently spent about 45 minutes walking through the building. He said he did not notice any shoddiness, but he was not really looking for it. Rather, he was focused mainly on examining the interior layout.

“It is full of cubicles, so it was tough to get a sense of the way the building really is,” Gibbs said.

But he indicated that it needs work to make it suitable for modern uses.

“It was really tight inside” due to the cubicles and low ceilings, he said, and it lacked “natural light” — sunlight — because of the lack of windows.

“I felt safe” in the building, Gibbs added, “but I don’t think I would have felt comfortable working in it eight hours a day.” He admitted that he felt a little claustrophobic there.

Gibbs said he will try to locate some possible future tenants for the building while Phoenix studies it.

He is optimistic the building can be reused.

The building once was the corporate offices for Tultex Corp., and it had been a Montgomery Ward department store many years ago. Gibbs noted that while it is smaller, the building is much like a former Montgomery Ward building in Greensboro, N.C., that now is being used for live theater productions.

Gibbs said the cost of any renovations would be based on what types of work the study reveals is necessary.

He said the cost likely could be covered by tax credits and for that reason, the county and city would need to transfer ownership to a private entity — temporarily, at least — before renovations begin.

Local governments do not qualify for tax credits because they do not pay taxes, he said.

Phoenix will pay for the study, and it will cost the localities nothing. Gibbs said he thinks the cost will be between $5,000 and $10,000, mainly for assistance from structural engineers and marketing experts.


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