Sunday, September 13, 2009

A hopeful look at hometown Danville, VA

Spending time once again in hometown Danville, a different perspective is emerging. Here at ENS there periodically have been posts on Danville with the most comprehensive being "Walking downtown Danville" on November 19, 2007. The general theme of comments has focused on the challenges of reviving a large rural city after losses of its core traditional industries in textiles and tobacco. Losing wages, a tax base, and many productive people has led over the years to challenges in education, health care, general employment, and crime. Posts here have addressed those issues while stressing the plight that affects many of the fine people that live here. This post, taking a different tact, is meant to look at what's going right.

One thing that always impresses this metro New Yorker is a pervasive attitude of appreciating the small things of day to day life. It's apparent in routine daily behaviors , in a sense of humor, and respectful, polite, eye contact real interactions that cut across all strata of society. There remain some remnants of Danville's legacy, a seemingly small but noticeable group of resentful white malcontents whose more extreme opinions would probably seem repulsive even to someone like Sean Hannity, but on the whole there is a laid back "we're all in this together" sensibility. Going to the community market on Saturday mornings is a place to feel this buzz, a place where one could know no one and have pleasant exchanges right and left and straight ahead. There are many nice people here, not a bad place to start.

Despite significant challenges, Danville is a city that has not given up, far from it. What is immediately noticeable is that despite a traditional downtown that is more than half empty storefronts, the streets and sidewalks are immaculately maintained, and that's true throughout the city. Well kept shrubs, trees, and plantings adorn most major ramps and intersections. Not far behind the scenes there's much more.

In recent years the city has built Riverwalk, an eight mile walkway along the Dan River through woods and fields. Heading east it links the Community Market, Science Museum, and train station area with a park downstream that has the minor league baseball stadium, a skateboard park, and baseball fields, and continues further through Ghost Island(a name derived in the 1700's from its stand of sycamores) to a fishing marina. Above the path through this area are multiple soccer and game fields, more than it seems possible for a town the size of Danville to use. This surfeit of fields now attracts an annual international college rugby tournament each spring that is organized by schools such as Duke, Yale, and other notables, and over 400 players participate. One local friend said to me, "the ambulances never stop going back and forth to the hospital on that long weekend". Riverwalk, walked extensively yesterday, has a steady flow of walkers, runners, picnickers, bicylists, and skateboarders, as well as lots of folks fishing, couples holding hands, and students cracking their books on the riverbank. Everything here is perfectly maintained. It's really a remarkable community amenity.

Here's another example of planned positive redevelopment. The area known as Liberty Hill in a traditionally black neighborhood had been the site of a run down housing project that had generally been known to be dominated by a criminal element that the residents had no choice but to tolerate. With Federal grant money that project was razed and in its place today is a large, attractive neighborhood of duplexes with yards, porches, and children out front playing. This income adjusted rent stabilized housing is an amazing change. Virtually all legal residents of the former projects have been relocated to these duplexes, if families, or to an assembly of subsidized apartments two miles away. While problems have apparently almost completely disappeared, a new police substation has been located in the area to make sure that stays the case.

No more than a half mile beyond the Liberty Hill duplexes is another eye opening project. The Tiger Woods Foundation, through some connection with Danville, bought a large parcel of land and donated it to the city for development of an 18 hole public golf course. With Federal grants the project is underway with land clearing apparent, a large putting green already in place, and a pre-existing warehouse type building that has been refurbished and updated into a maintenance garage and facility for the eventual course.

On the business front, attracting new jobs that provide security and adequate compensation is the priority. There has been some success in recent years, but it is very limited relative to the number of jobs lost in recent decades. Danville persists. With the leadership of their tobacco settlement funded Advanced Technology Institute, the city now has an up and running scaleable fiber optic network for commercial enterprises and city government.

That has apparently been the hook for buyers of the "White Mill", a huge abandoned textile mill structure on the river near downtown. This recent transaction not only includes the mill itself but through eminent domain all parcels on either side of the old mill between two major bridges. Promises for development of this site have been huge in terms of dollars to be invested and jobs to be created, but detail on this is somewhere between vague and non-existent. Is it a maneuver to take advantage of a dirt cheap price and government subsidies and then flip the property or is it a real and beneficial, even game changing, project. No one seems to know. Rumors abound. The most prevalent one is that it will be a major high tech data site for Homeland Security and that's why there has been no public announcement. Cover blown if that's true as this rumor is whispered by both the general population and some presumably well connected business and legal types. Server farm, foreign owned industrial tech business, low cost incubator site, other thoughts are out there and when this mystery will be resolved is unknown. Hope is not a bad thing.

On the more traditional industrial and infrastruture development front, Danville's new Democratic representative in Congress arranged for $29 million of TARP money to rebuild the decaying and constantly backed up Robertson Bridge at the far west side of the city, and the underside of the new bridge will be used as a conduit to lay power and communication cables that connect to yet another but more sizeable industrial park. The major construction will begin in 2010. This park is possibly looking for the really big fish that would create a more meaningful number of jobs as opposed to the 150 jobs here, 200 there, kind of development in other areas locally that don't begin to offset textile and tobacco, much less the loss of 400 well paying jobs at Goodyear and the shut down of a small Corning facility in 2009. The effort is there and, while one could argue that some of it is naive or misguided, it speaks to the active nature of the community in working for revival.

With the unemployment rate around 12% and many of the existing jobs at minimum wage or just above it, Danville has an economy that continues to slow down as the ripple effects of the recession continue. Favorite restaurants that would have been full 18 months ago have only three or four tables taken today, and feeding patterns could possibly be the most reliable economic indicator for what at times seems to be a calorie unconscious town. Someone close to Danville says that it is just the beginning of saving for Christmas, but this is still a concern.

Ending where this started, the challenge of economic revival is huge. Danville needs to rebuild a trained labor force and attract a new entreprenurial class. It's easy to point out the problems. Solutions are not simple or easy or necessarily even achievable. What's clear, however, is that this game is not over. Not being able to predict the future, the city of Danville is making a stand, nurturing some hope, and looking for a little luck, hoping to move out of the past and on to a period of good karma.

1 Comments:

Blogger publisher said...

John,

Thanks for an interesting and balanced post about Danville's economic progress and continuing challenges.

Your post was forwarded to me by a friend, and I have taken the liberty of re-posting it to our community web site SouthernVirginia.com at http://southernvirginia.ning.com/profiles/blogs/a-hopeful-look-at-hometown.

Wayne Wilson

1:00 PM  

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