Harvest: Project couldn't survive without subsidies

November 7, 2010

The Harvest Foundation has made it official: Plans to build an arena in uptown Martinsville have been scrapped.

In a news release issued Friday, the foundation stated, “The Harvest board confirmed its decision of two years ago to not invest in the multi-use arena complex that was originally proposed for uptown. The decision was based on the inability of the proposed complex to sustain itself without significant, ongoing taxpayer and foundation subsidies, especially in the current weak economy.”

Harvest stated that it intends to consider investment opportunities throughout uptown and not limit the focus to a single site or specific dollar amount, the release stated.

The Harvest board anticipates working with the city and Phoenix Community Development Corp. to identify “transformative projects” and investment partners to maximize the impact of their efforts, it added.

“Our first priority is to fund sustainable projects that will transform our community,” said Paul Toms, chairman of the Harvest board. “Building an arena that would have required ongoing taxpayer and foundation subsidy at a time when our community can least afford it would have been irresponsible.

“We will have greater and longer-lasting impact through diversifying our investment in uptown in partnership with other funders and investors. We are firmly committed to uptown’s success and encourage residents to participate in the planning process funded by this grant for both Baldwin Block and the courthouse,” he added.

He was referring to a $654,957 grant announced Friday for the city of Martinsville. Part of that money will fund community input, planning and site assessment for the Baldwin Block — once the site of the proposed arena at the corner of Fayette and Market streets — and the area behind the former courthouse, the Harvest release stated. The public will be asked to help determine the best and most sustainable uses for these areas.

Several possible uses have been mentioned in the past for the Baldwin Block, which is owned by the city. In February, New College Institute Executive Director Barry Dorsey said a new NCI building is shown on the block in a new master plan for uptown Martinsville.

Allyson Rothrock, executive director of the Harvest Foundation, said Saturday an NCI building is one thing — but not the only thing — being considered.

“The thinking is to pull together more community convening” to determine what makes sense on that site, she said.

Any building plans for NCI probably would go hand-in-hand with its growth, possibly into a branch of an existing college or university in the state as was recommended last week, Rothrock said.

“That’s huge,” she said. “As those talks start we will see where we are.”

“At the same time, one of the most compelling things that has happened is the renovation of empty space (in uptown) because of NCI. The foundation feels strongly that is a key part of what goes forward,” Rothrock said. “We’d be crazy not to continue to renovate existing space as needed. ... We’ve got to figure out the next step.”

The Baldwin Block also has been mentioned as a possible site for a proposed West Side community center. However, the committee proposing that center wants the city to allow the center to be built on unused land at Dana O. Baldwin Park on Swanson Street. Martinsville City Council has endorsed the project but not a site.

Rothrock said she has met with committee members and offered them advice.

“My message is if there is a need — we haven’t done an assessment but I don’t doubt it — show me programs” with 100 to 150 youth and volunteers doing things in local churches, vacant buildings and schools during off hours, she said.

Rothrock said she suggested that the organizers build strong programs, ranks of committed volunteers and partnerships with others in the community.

“Get things really going on the ground. Then make the case that you need something else,” she said she told the group. “I’m sure they will” do that and follow same process other groups must undergo, she added. “They have to do that.”

“It’s not just about giving money to build a building,” Rothrock said, referring back to the abandoned arena, the community center or any other project.

With respect to the arena specifically, Rothrock asked, “Is it the right thing to do to burden the taxpayers of Martinsville for a project that financially is not viable? I don’t think it is the right thing to do.”

The arena plan was unveiled in October 2006 along with plans for what has become the Smith River Sports Complex off the U.S. 58 bypass. Harvest helps fund the authority that oversees the complex, but there is no taxpayer money in the facility.

The $16 million fieldhouse and arena were to be an 80,000-square-foot facility. Highlights were to include a 35,000-square-foot fieldhouse that could support basketball courts, volleyball courts and indoor soccer and could be used for trade shows and exhibits.

It also was to include a 30,000-square-foot multi-purpose arena that could have accommodated concerts and basketball competitions, and a 7,500-square-foot fitness space with a 1/8-mile elevated walking track. At the time, it was projected to open in October 2009.

But in December 2008, Rothrock said the foundation was reassessing those plans due to the economic downturn, lessons learned during construction of the sports complex and more going on uptown.


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