Council open to Baldwin ideas

November 11, 2010

By DEBBIE HALL - Bulletin Staff Writer

Several Martinsville City Council members are open to ideas about how the Baldwin Block in uptown Martinsville should be developed.

The Harvest Foundation announced Friday that it had officially scrapped plans to build an 80,000-square-foot arena complex on the site. The $16 million project, proposed four years ago, had been on hold since late 2008.

Harvest officials cited the project’s inability to sustain itself without “significant, ongoing taxpayer and foundation subsidies” as one reason it was abandoned.

At the same time, Harvest approved a grant to fund community input, planning and site assessment for the Baldwin Block as well as the area behind the former courthouse. The public will be asked to help determine the best and most sustainable uses for the two areas.

City Councilman Danny Turner said he campaigned for his seat in 2008 on his belief that the arena proposal was unfair to city taxpayers because of the costs they would have to bear. He noted that the city already has invested $450,000 in preparing the land on the Baldwin Block and buying and demolishing some buildings there.

With the arena project officially scrapped, Turner said the “best-case scenario” is to build a branch of an existing university on the property as proposed for the New College Institute, which is uptown. NCI Executive Director Barry Dorsey has said a new NCI building is shown on the site in a master plan for uptown.

Turner said he “would love to see” that branch tied in with research on emerging clean energies, he said.

“We have our own electric grid. Maybe this could be an energy research campus,” he said. “It would be a money maker instead of a drain on the community to have Baldwin Block as part of a campus.”

The arena proposal was part of a Harvest announcement that included what has become the Smith River Sports Complex off the U.S. 58 bypass. That $8 million project was completed in 2009.

Harvest cited lessons it learned during the construction of the complex, as well as the economic downturn, when it tabled the arena plan in 2008.

Martinsville Mayor Kim Adkins said she is open to suggestions for the block’s use.

“I don’t have any preconceived notions” about what to locate there, she said. “I think all options will be highly entertained” by Harvest.

Adkins, who supports a recent recommendation that NCI evolve into a branch campus of an existing university, said she believes “the one true transformative entity in our area will be the success” of the New College Institute.

Adkins, who like other council members was not surprised by Harvest’s decision to drop the plan, said she does not feel cheated because Harvest carried through with plans to build the sports complex in the county but did not follow through with the arena in Martinsville.

“Any success in Henry County is going to be a success in Martinsville as well,” she said. “I approach it from a regional perspective. I think we need to look at the big picture long-term, and I am feeling really good about the direction the city is going in” with revitalization efforts and NCI possibly becoming an affiliate branch of another university.

“If Baldwin Block is part of that, it will be positive” for the entire region, she said.

Councilman Gene Teague said the arena “as it was proposed was not the best thing for us,” but that does not mean development of the Baldwin Block is dead.

“The way I read the release” from Harvest, “they will consider” projects to develop the area but are not committed to building any one project, he said.

Ideally, proposals for the site will be facilities that are self-sustaining and meet the community’s needs, Teague said.

He would like to see a multi-purpose facility built as part of an anchor project to provide a place for community theater and “perhaps a large banquet hall as well as include an outdoor component” for residents to use.

Councilman Mark Stroud said when the arena project was announced in 2006, “there was a lot of public debate and discussion,” but many people were not sure it was a good idea.

“Then, there was a period of time where there wasn’t much said at all,” Stroud said.

Like Teague, Stroud said he would like a multi-use type of facility built for music and other venues — perhaps something similar to Carrington Pavilion, a musical venue in the warehouse district of Danville, he said.

“Several localities have a stage” that is interchangeable to promote multi-use, Stroud said. Ideally, a multi-use facility “also would have a covered area with a roof for an orchestra, band or flat-footing,” he said.

Stroud said he also would “like to see a support facility for NCI to locate there.”

He, too, is pleased with the sports complex. “Our community has a wonderful sports complex out there. It’s already drawing large tournaments and championships,” he said.

Although the arena was nixed, “Harvest has committed to the revitalization of uptown, and that is extremely important,” Stroud said. “I appreciate what Harvest had done and will continue to do.”

Councilman Kimble Reynolds Jr. did not return a call for comment.


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