Sunday, June 01, 2008

Following up --- Danville's dichotomy

There have been several visits to hometown Danville, Virginia since the last post on that city here on November 19. The issues remain more or less the same, those of a city that has been on the decline and is now looking for "revitalization".

As an update, the positives highlighted by the town's champions are: the continued build-out of the regional center of national mega-store chains; the opening of an Ikea furniture factory, a call center, and several other businesses on the outskirts of town, and the apparent prospect for more opportunities of this type; the continued progression of downtown Danville's rehabilitation; and the addition of a new and expanded science museum as well as an impressive technology institute.

Those are incrementally positive without question but it is an open question as to whether they are indicative of any fundamental change that will really renew the community.

The regional retail center will add jobs, maybe as many as a thousand as well as the managers to run them. The great majority of those jobs will pay relatively low wages but are jobs with some modest benefits that are needed. The area is expected to attract shoppers from neighboring counties and therefore incremental business for area restaurants and other service providers, and if the downtown across the river actually did begin to get a few more pioneers to open restaurants or shops, there could be spillover to support that effort. At the moment the road infrastructure to handle the new stores, simply get people in and out, is somewhat of a question but within a year these new shopping areas along the Riverside area will be completed.

The new industries outside of town are a definite cause for excitement in Danville. The Ikea plant is apparently impressive and is expected to expand over time. There is also the potential for Ikea suppliers to make the decision to locate nearby. The plant has initially hired 130 local workers, paltry sounding, as technology has taken many tasks out of the hands of workers. Starting pay is just around $15 an hour but the benefits are excellent, no comparison to the retail sector here. Other newer businesses, like the call center, don't pay as well or have the same benefits. Jobs are jobs, and this is all incrementally a good thing, but is Danville really just becoming a "center of excellence" for low wage minimally skilled labor. Can an optimistic future, a true "revitalization", be built off of this kind of job base.

Downtown Danville's status, a primary focus of the 11/19 post, remains stalled on track as best as can be observed. No noticeable changes, but best intentions are still in place and the historic tobacco warehouse district has one more condominium building almost completed. Some new condos are being leased at the moment as buyers are in short supply. Others are being bought by urban out-of-towners with connections to the area, sort of as a low priced pied à terre in the country. In another warehouse district building there is a private nanotechnology research company, twenty or so Virginia Tech Phd's wired to the world behind their solid brick walls and thick hardwood floors.

The new technology institute is an impressive building. Funded in large part by tobacco settlement money and with Virginia Tech adding researchers and programs, there could be enormous potential here. In a way, however, it just seems like a lego that doesn't fit with anything else. On a brief tour of the facility I was told that there were five major research projects underway in various wings of the building. There are free, that's free, classes available to area residents in computer science, math and other areas. Walking into the building through a long hallway and then into an expansive world class atrium lobby and spending maybe ten minutes there, we saw two other people. An area off the lobby designed to be a sandwich and coffee style cafe was empty, as in no longer open, as the anticipated build out of research capability and the community involvement did not yet justify its existence. In a way it was a reminder of the downtown's dilemma of an infrastructure in place but not close to being fully utilized. I did not go into the new science museum, funded by some foundation grants and state money, but with all of the needs that Danville has in the areas of health care and youth community centers etc., it seems to be somewhat of an unusual allocation of resources.

All of these areas of progress are in a tenuous balance with the core problems of Danville, which can only be called negatives for attracting and keeping those who would contribute to a more vibrant community: a regional hospital complex that has been working through serious issues; a community health care infrastructure that has a shortage of doctors relative to the population's needs; a school system that, especially at the secondary level, apparently needs to be focused more on stability and safety than on advances in education; an issue with crime, gangs, and drug abuse that is not improving at all; and deteriorating housing stock in some older neighborhoods that in bigger cities would be called "urban blight".

The one issue that has evolved in an observable way since just six months ago is crime, and not in a positive way. The almost daily convenience store robbery or parking lot purse snatching reported on is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. According to some who would know, there is significant gang activity in town and it's not just wannabes, it's the real thing as national gangs have franchised out their drugs to Danville just as the national retail stores have sent their goods to Riverside Drive. Apart from that, there is simply observable dysfunction that is at a hard to believe level. Walking up the historic area of Main Street just above downtown at noon on Saturday I was accosted by large man in his 30's, shirttail half in half out, hair messed up and he was obviously messed up. He crossed the street as I walked yelling "come here, where you going, you afraid(Yes) etc." I walked on, avoided eye contact and after half of a block he stopped yelling and following me. A short time later, a visitor at my father's apartment looked out the window and saw a policemen running across the front lawn in pursuit of someone, maybe the same person, maybe another. It was hilarious at the time, but this does not exactly suggest an attractive place to live. Anecdotes, true ones, tell of daytime break-ins of homes in the traditionally well-to-do neighborhood of Forest Hills and the solid middle class neighborhood of Grove Park. My father's morning attendant lives in a less well-to-do neighborhood but one that is well kept and has apartments built in recent years, and he came in shaken up during my visit as a neighboring apartment of an elderly couple had been hit by multiple gunshots at 3 in the morning, reportedly by gang members in a drug dispute that had the wrong address. Lots of crime news in six days.

Is Danville following, in a miniature version, the same pattern that major U.S. regional cities have been through in the past. The core is allowed to deteriorate even while vitality surrounds it. The problem with that thought is that many of those large cities had metro areas that could attract and retain entrepreneurs and professionals while Danville, by virtue of its size, is thin around the edges.

The town obviously has some serious problems that are not likely to be addressed by the new retail complex or the new industry on the outside of town. That said, new jobs and investment are unequivocally positive. Real change, real revitalization, however, is something more elusive.

What could cause this real change. Some guesses---a planetary spiritual awakening mysteriously begins in Danville; a Korean or even Indian or Chinese car company plops down a huge construction project, leading ultimately to 2000 well paid auto assembly jobs; or the nano tech group on Craighead Street and the five groups of researchers at the technology institute become a nucleus for making Danville a spoke on the hubs of Blacksburg 9o miles to the north and Research Triangle, NC 80 miles to the south. Technology researchers see Danville's quality facilities, low cost of living, minimal traffic, and a lifestyle free from the social demands of the young urban professional set, and the city becomes an outpost for proprietary project oriented groups that want privacy, convenience and affordability. A pipe dream maybe, but one that could ultimately lead to the most change as new ideas filter in. Stranger things have happened...

In the absence of some watershed event, however, the path to real revitalization may be just hard work combined with a new mindset. There are problems that cause long term residents to leave Danville and prevent energetic new people with families from moving in. It may simply start with realizing that the incremental approaches being taken to improving health care, the school system, and the entire issue of crime prevention(police, courts, community resources, counseling etc.) are unlikely to get the job done. A few thousand more mid-level to low-level jobs are unlikely to do the trick either. If I had the answer it would be here. One thing I do know, however, is that Danville is an attractive affordable town with many fine people, and if the problems could be addressed new people would be at the doorstep. What are the hard choices to be made that can really change this place?


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