The Future is Bright in Downtown South Boston

Our guest blogger, Zachary Whitlow (pictured left), is a Community Revitalization Specialist at the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), working closely with the agency’s Virginia Main Street (VMS) program and Rural Community Development Initiative (RCDI). He loves helping communities across Virginia unleash the power of small-scale, grassroots revitalization to build a sense of place and ensure economic vitality!

Recently, I visited Downtown South Boston! Having worked virtually for the better part of 18 months, it was incredibly refreshing to be on the ground, observing firsthand the uniqueness of one of the communities that I represent through DHCD, as well as witness the enthusiasm of community changemakers, like Tamyra Vest, Executive Director of Destination Downtown South Boston (DDSB), who work tirelessly to ensure South Boston’s future is bright!

When I arrived, I was greeted with a friendly hello and wave from a woman, likely a resident, walking past Town Hall, the chief landmark of the commercial district. I was headed there to meet Tamyra (left) and kick off our district tour. Approaching the building, I took notice of the rounded corner entrance framed by engaged Doric columns and surmounted by a full pediment. The imposing “U”-shaped building epitomizes South Boston’s rapid turn-of-the-century development. Once Tamyra and I had gotten our bearings, we began walking the commercial district!

We headed North along Main Street, and the first thing to catch my eye was the colorful wooden barn quilt designs that were featured along the backside of Sentara Behavioral Health Services on Wilborn Avenue. These works of art were created by Simply Vintage by Bre and installed last year. They definitely help beautify the downtown district, create a sense of place and contribute to the community’s small-town charm, as well as serve as a great example of how localities can strategically lure visitors through their downtown, keeping them moving and wanting to see more.

Our first stop was at The Busy Bean, a quaint downtown coffee shop that offers a variety of coffee, smoothies, sandwiches and more! We ordered a couple beverages to-go, and while waiting, we talked about how resilient the owner, Anne Eakes, has been throughout the pandemic and how exciting it was to see an award recipient from the SoBo Start-Up! Program, which was made possible by a 2017 Community Business Launch (CBL) grant, still open for business several years later! Whether you’re heading to work, going to lunch or just passing through town, I highly recommend visiting The Busy Bean.

Fueled up and ready to explore, Tamyra and I continued walking around downtown, visiting businesses and project sites, while also examining where private and public investment are occurring to bolster economic vitality. I was particularly excited to visit Wisters, home of South Boston’s premier flower bar, where patrons can create their own floral arrangement.

“In presentations across the country, I commonly use Wister’s flower bar as one of the best examples of experiential retailing.” – Matt Wagner, Chief Program Officer, Main Street America

I also had an opportunity to visit Mother Cluckers, a unique home décor and interior design shop. The business’ two owners used to be healthcare workers that became entrepreneurs, fulfilling their dreams of opening a small business. Once the decision to pursue their new venture was made, it was only a matter of days before they closed on a location and began renovating the space that would soon house a thriving business. Mother Cluckers opened a few days before the pandemic reared its ugly head, but its still going strong today, largely due in part to the resiliency of its owners – a common trait amongst entrepreneurs in Downtown South Boston.

After checking out a few businesses, Tamyra had us stop to view the former John Randolph Hotel, which currently sits vacant. South Boston received an Industrial Revitalization Fund (IRF) grant, totaling $475,000, to help convert the property into a boutique hotel that features a variety of amenities and expansion opportunities. In 2013, South Boston’s Industrial Development Authority (IDA) purchased the highly visible structure and has recently been working to secure a developer to redevelop this local treasure, breathing new life into a historic building. I’m looking forward to future project updates and hearing about this property’s long awaited transformation!

Before heading to lunch, we visited the SOVA Innovation Hub, which opened earlier this year, where Lauren Mathena, Director of Economic Development and Community Engagement at Mid-Atlantic Broadband (MBC), provided a tour of the state-of-the-art facility that includes a coworking space, a training space and the Microsoft Experience Center. Truthfully, I was quite impressed and excited that South Boston and other southern Virginia communities have such a unique asset to leverage as the region enhances its entrepreneurial ecosystem and embraces a diverse coworking community of all types of business owners, entrepreneurs and remote workers. Undoubtedly, the SOVA Innovation Hub, created by MBC and Microsoft, will spark economic transformation in South Boston and southern Virginia. Even more exciting, an expansion has been planned next door to create SOVA Innovation Labs, a facility that will directly serve entrepreneurs, including start-ups and growing businesses through various means, one being a makerspace!

Tamyra and I had worked up an appetite! We met Lin Hite, DDSB Board President, and Tom Raab, Town Manager, for lunch at Southern Plenty, an artsy, eclectic cafe. Once again, I was glad to see a CBL winner still active and thriving in Downtown South Boston. It was great to have had an opportunity to sit down with local leaders and hear their perspective on how the community has weathered the pandemic, embraced new growth and planned for the future as we move through recovery. Per usual, DDSB and the town are in lockstep, working together to solve district challenges.

Before I departed, Tamyra had arranged a tour of one of South Boston’s most impressive adaptive reuse projects. Across the street from Town Hall, the former United Virginia Bank stands as the finest example of Neoclassical commercial architecture in South Boston. Built in 1918, it is an impressive temple-form stone building with engaged ionic columns flanking an entrance enriched by a classical frontispiece. Today, it houses a modern apartment that features a mixture of new and old that has led to an elegant residence. It also has the potential to house a commercial component on the ground floor. The property owner, Stanley Jeffress, has created something that’s quite breathtaking, and I was fortunate to have been granted access and see the building’s marvelous transformation!

I greatly enjoyed visiting South Boston, and I’m certain it won’t be long before I’m back in the community! I wasn’t able to see everything the downtown district had to offer, but Tamyra promised we’ll check out South Boston’s newest brewery, Factory Street Brewing Company, next time I’m in town, and I’m going to take her up on that offer!

Reflecting on my visit, I’m confident that South Boston’s future is bright! Local leaders firmly understand that a healthy, viable downtown is crucial to the economic health and civic pride of the entire community. Most importantly, they value partnerships, working in tandem with key stakeholders to make a positive impact. While there are many factors that contribute to the sustainability of revitalization programs across Virginia and the country, I firmly believe that’s the key to success – collaboration. Whether you’re speaking to downtown merchants, property owners, municipal staff or community partners, you’ll hear a similar message across South Boston, one that stresses cooperation and mutual trust. I’m confident that we’re going to be hearing a lot more about South Boston over the coming months and years as the community continues to flourish and reach new heights! Stay tuned!