Gibbs, Chamber mull uptown upgrades

November 12, 2010

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

Redevelopment expert Ray Gibbs is adamant about one thing he thinks is needed to lure more people uptown.

“At some point,” he said, “we’ve got to change the one-way streets to two-way.”

Opening Church and Main streets uptown to two-way travel would make it easier for motorists to get around the central business district, said Gibbs, executive director of the Phoenix Community Development Corp. He thinks that would result in more traffic, and more people passing through uptown would stop and visit businesses there, he said.

He made those remarks during a presentation about his organization at the Martinsville-Henry County Chamber of Commerce’s board meeting Thursday. He recalled getting lost when he first came to the area.

Board members did not indicate whether they agree with Gibbs’ idea, which already has been studied but not acted upon.

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

Community development corporations essentially are nonprofit developers, said Gibbs. They tackle “projects that private developers probably wouldn’t look at” due to complexities, costs and time that might be needed, he said.

In developing properties, Phoenix will seek to tap funding sources such as the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission, Appalachian Regional Commission and Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development. It also will seek tax credits as well as help from financial institutions, according to officials.

Partnerships with private developers will be sought in redevelopment efforts, Gibbs said. He added that Phoenix may set up an equity fund to reduce risks for private developers who get involved in its projects.

Phoenix eventually may develop properties throughout the city and county, but its first focus is assisting in uptown revitalization efforts, Gibbs said.

Its first project is the former Henry Hotel, which the city bought to redevelop. Gibbs said an architectural and engineering firm is almost finished with a structural study of the hotel, and Phoenix soon will begin seeking cost estimates for renovations.

Phoenix also is studying the former Tultex Corp. headquarters, which housed offices for Henry-Martinsville Social Services until early this year.

Gibbs said it is too soon to say how either building eventually might be redeveloped.

Ultimately, Phoenix wants to turn older buildings into “something unique” so they can be marketed competitively with “vanilla product (newer structures that basically look the same as other buildings) somewhere else,” he said.

He mentioned the possibility of Phoenix helping start businesses and eventually turning over ownership to other investors or new owners.

Gibbs indicated that some uptown buildings may need major renovations.

“You have some massive buildings,” yet they have few windows, which could make it hard to turn them into residences, small businesses or offices as they are, he said.

He also indicated that new buildings could be erected where some parking areas are now. Sixty-five percent of uptown consists of “surface parking lots,” and that is “extremely high” for a business district of its size, Gibbs said.

Chamber board member Joe Keiper asked how the New College Institute (NCI) fits into Phoenix’s vision for uptown.

The state- and Harvest-funded institute, which has classrooms and offices in several buildings uptown, is targeting evolving into a branch campus of one of Virginia’s state-supported universities.

NCI “will have a tremendous impact” as it grows, Gibbs said. He indicated that the presence of students will help attract businesses uptown and that students could live in residences that may be developed in certain buildings.

Referring to the community itself, Keiper, executive director of the Virginia Museum of Natural History, said, “If you can move 300 kids (college students to) uptown, it would be awesome.”

Statistics show that people who live in central business districts spend five to eight times as much money in the districts as people who just work there, said Gibbs. Therefore, if 300 students someday begin living uptown, it would have roughly the same impact as at least 1,500 more people working there, he reasoned.

Gibbs is “one of the nation’s foremost” experts on redeveloping business districts, said chamber board Chairman Marsha Frith. She mentioned he has spurred more than $1 billion in investments during his career.

Before coming to Martinsville, Gibbs spent eight years as president and chief executive officer of Downtown Greensboro Inc. There, he helped revitalize that metropolitan North Carolina city’s downtown area, such as by bringing in restaurants and nightclubs.

Gibbs also used to oversee downtown redevelopment efforts in Smithfield, N.C., a city of about 10,000 people which, like Martinsville, has dealt with numerous layoffs in its industrial sector.


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