A Jewel Worth Saving: Re-imagining Danville’s North Union Street

Guest Blogger Diana Schwartz, executive director of Danville’s River District Association, is a native of Dickenson County, Virginia, and was previously director of business retention for the Ocala/Marion Chamber and Economic Partnership in Florida, as well as director of the Ocala Main Street Program.

Danville, Virginia may be best known for the railroad system, including the wreck of the “Old 97,“and a rich textile and tobacco history.  But there is a block in downtown Danville, North Union Street, that also has a story of its own.

Recognized as a historical African-American business “mecca” during the era of legal segregation, North Union Street has been home to bustling businesses such as doctors offices, restaurants, a bank currently celebrating its 100th anniversary, barbers and salons, art galleries, and much more since the 1880s. After the closing of Dan River Mills in 2006, the street (like much of downtown) began a rapid economic decline.

Fast Forward to 2018, and over $125 million has been invested in the re-imagining of the River District.  Locally, there is an ever-watchful eye on preservation of the history, the buildings and the stories of the people.  This ethos of preserving both property and personal history led to the recognition that North Union Street was a jewel worth not only saving, but sharing.  In the fall of 2018, the River District Association was invited to participate in the 2018 Partners in Preservation campaign to showcase this history on a national level while competing for a grant to help further the preservation of the properties.

Over the course of 30 days in Sept./Oct. 2018, Danville was charged to garner the most online votes against 20 historic properties throughout the United States in order to win grant funding.  The committee knew the key was not just talking about the buildings, but the history of the people that inhabited them.

Ultimately, Danville pulled out a win. and $150,000 will now be used towards preservation and restoration of two North Union properties. The city of Danville recently completed a streetscape project on North Union, and RDA is currently in the process of a Community Business Launch program with the goal of opening five new business in the summer/fall of 2019 with a focus on North Union Street.  It is by sharing our past that we can build for the future, and we look forward to watching new stories being added to the History of North Union in the coming years.

Learn more about the re-imagining of the Danville River District >>>

Tayloe Murphy Resilience Award finalists announced

The Darden School of Business and its Tayloe Murphy Center at the University of Virginia has announced 14 finalists for the 2011 Tayloe Murphy Resilience Award.  The following businesses in Virginia Main Street Communities were selected from among 88 applicants and 21 semi-finalists:

A Bowl of Good Cafe, Inc., Harrisonburg
Gearclean, Winchester
Highground Services, Franklin
L & R Precision Tooling, Lynchburg
Linstrand USA, Inc., South Boston
Thomas A. Johnson Furniture Company, Lynchburg

DHCD Commercial District Affiliates were also represented:
Chateau Morrisette, Inc., Floyd
MountainRose Vineyareds, Inc., Wise
Office Plus Business Centre, Danville

The Tayloe Murphy Awards recognize the most resilient businesses in Virginia — those that demonstrate the entrepreneurial spirit and commitment to community in areas facing high unemployment, high poverty and low entrepreneurial activity. In 2010, Martinsville Uptown business Solid Stone Fabrics received the award.

Read the inspirational story of these businesses making a difference in the press release. For more information on the trainings and programs of the Tayloe Murphy Center, visit www.tayloemurphy.org.

Lynchburg spot blight program serving as model

Lynchburg’s spot blight program may be a model for Danville as that community’s city council investigates strategies to improve the appearance and quality of the community while caring for historic resources. Danville has done a lot to capitalize on its historic character, including loft conversion in the tobacco warehouse district, the interpretation of local history through a mural program, and the founding of the state’s first historic preservation clubs in high schoolsWatch the video here about the current discussion.

Lynchburg’s spot blight program provides the city with an effective tool to get blighted properties out of the hands of absentee property owners. Historic properties can then be acquired by sympathetic investors and unsafe, non-historic  properties that may be discouraging investment in surrounding properties can be removed.

Lynchburg provides a good model, not just because of the similarities in the two communities, but because City Attorney Walter C. Erwin, III is acknowledged as an expert resource around the commonwealth.  More than 140 blighted properties have been addressed throught the program since it began in 1999.  In 2009 he presented on blight reduction at the Virginia Municipal League Conference, and the proceedings from his session provide a thorough overview of tools and policies. It’s well worth downoading and filing with your revitalization resources.

Danville effort first historic preservation club in commonwealth high schools

The Danville Historical Society is modeling the way for youth outreach across the state. They have a board member in charge of coordinating youth activities, and they recently led the commonwealth by establishing the state’s first high school historic preservation clubs.

Danville's historic homes, mills, and other commercial buildings serve as a laboratory for high school students.

The effort, simultaneously establishing clubs at George Washington High School and at Galileo Magnet High School, have piqued the interest of more than 40 student-members. Co-sponsored by Preservation Virginia, the clubs are engaging the young people in the activities of the historical society and in skills-building activities such as the researching of historical events and properties and the archiving of documents.

The efforts to establish the clubs were led by student co-founders and teacher and administrator champions in addition to the Danville Historical Society volunteers.

If it can be done in Danville, why not in your community?

In addition to the local historical society, Main Street and downtown revitalization leaders can help connect the next generation of preservationists with resources and new experiences. For more information on Danville’s effort, read the Danville News story or contact the Danville Historical Society

The unexpected entrepreneur

If you were asked to describe an entrepreneur, what words would you use?  Maybe terms like “bright, energetic, or magnetic.”  This 2004 article in the aptly named magazine Entrepreneur, gives a whole host of other terms, not all of them complimentary. 

Two descriptions of an entrepreneur that most people would not use are “ex-felon,” and “non-English speaking.”  However, it may just be these often overlooked sectors of your community could be an integral piece of your community’s economic restructuring.  In the classic Republic, Plato said, “Necessity is the mother of invention.”  If this is true, then those least able to obtain traditional employment should be those with the most entrepreneurial spirit.

Upholsterer and entrepreneur Troy Graves. Photo by Tara Bozick, Danville News.

Take Troy Graves.  This Danville resident spent a few years in prison, where he apprenticed as an upholsterer, eventually redoing a chair for the Governor’s office.  When he completed his incarceration, he had trouble finding steady work but was determined not to go back to his former ways.  With the help of a partnership with Virginia Enterprise Initiative, New Visions New Ventures and the Small Business Development Center, Troy was able to get business skills training, write a business plan, and obtain a microloan that allowed him to set up shop.   When this newspaper article hit the street, his phone rang off the hook and he has business lined up for the foreseeable future.  Troy is still building his credit, and hopes to own his building one day soon. 

And consider this positive story from National Public Radio from a place where positive stories have been few and far between.  It seems the one part of Detroit that is flourishing is the predominantly Latino neighborhood known as “Mexican Town.”  Many less developed economies have a strong entrepreneurial tradition; again, harkening back to Plato’s words about necessity.  The most entrepreneurial members of these societies often find a way to come to the United States and bring that spirit with them. 

Make sure you consider all aspects of your local business environment when planning your community’s future.  You just might find success in the most unexpected places.