Collaborative praised as a true ‘community project’

The state funds awarded Tuesday for the Smith River Small Towns Collaborative to launch a revitalization project in western Henry County is being praised as an investment in the future and recognition of “truly a community project.”

State Secretary of Commerce and Trade Maurice Jones announced Tuesday in Bassett that Henry County has been awarded a $700,000 Community Development Block Grant to partially fund the first phase of the collaborative’s project. The total cost of the first phase is estimated at $3.2 million.

The phase includes such things as signs, façade improvements, exterior work to the Fieldale Community Center, improvements to the Bassett train depot and improvements to town squares in both Bassett and Fieldale, among other work. Streetscapes, signs and other work also are envisioned in Stanleytown and Koehler in future phases.

“It’s very exciting for the entire community,” said Henry County Administrator Tim Hall. The county applied for the grant, with Lee Clark and Mary Ann Mason of the county planning office handling much of the paperwork and grant process, Hall said.

He praised their work at Tuesday’s event.

“What’s intriguing about this is it is a true community partnership” involving the county, the Harvest Foundation, the state and residents, Hall said. That is a lesson for other areas envisioning such projects, he said. “No one can accomplish anything in a silo,” he added.

Hall credited residents of Fieldale and Bassett with being the “spark plugs” for the project. He singled out Jeb Bassett, who is co-chairman of the collaborative with Bill Adkins, as a “tremendous leader.”

The two co-chairmen share long histories and passions for their communities — Jeb Bassett for Bassett and Adkins for Fieldale, Jeb Bassett said.

Yet they sought participants in the collaborative who were united behind improving the area regardless of where they lived, he said.

“I often thought first about the Fieldale community before making statements about the Bassett community,” Bassett said, adding that other people did the same. For instance, “Doug Stegall (of Collinsville) is most passionate about Bassett, especially the train station. He’s quite a historian of the area. He mentioned it (the depot) at practically every meeting.”

Bassett added that he hopes the project will be a model for collaborations.

As a result of the collaboration, Bassett said he envisions the development of Fieldale and Bassett town squares, as well as signs, lighting, possibly banners, benches and planters, that would anchor the two ends of a network of river activities and trails. He foresees a vibrant community center in Fieldale and a refurbished train depot in Bassett, with activities drawing people to both.

“I would see a common theme although not identical because each community has its history and heritage and assets,” Bassett said.

The history of Fieldale and Koehler are tied to the textile industry, and the history of Bassett and Stanleytown rests with the furniture industry.

As improvements are made, Bassett said, “the real goal is economic development and tourism, and by creating these hubs of activity it’s going to make the community a better place to live and work and raise a family,” he said.

“People go to Philpott and Fairy Stone (State Park) each summer. It would be great to have a place for them to stop, fuel up, buy snacks and supplies, maybe have a public area for parking and rest rooms,” he continued. “People are going to be traveling through the middle of Bassett anyway. We would like to have a reason for them to pull over and stop.”

Mark Heath, president/CEO of the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp. (EDC), echoed Bassett’s comment about tapping some of the 700,000 people who travel to Philpott Lake each year.

“They go up (Virginia) 57 to the lake and there are not a lot of other things for them to do,” Heath said. “We would like to capture some of that traffic.”

That is why the EDC has committed $200,000 to the collaborative, with $150,000 of that earmarked for improvements to the Bassett train depot and the rest for the Bassett town square.

“We’ve been trying to work for years on ways to renovate the Bassett depot” into a venue for music and other activities as part of the EDC’s tourism initiatives, Heath said, adding that the EDC helps fund the area’s trail system for the same reason.

“The collaborative rolled it all together,” he said. He also added that many businesses have been extremely supportive of this project in the area.

The cooperation among residents on the project “has been noticeable,” Heath said. “This has been a unifying initiative that has gotten people thinking outside their box a little bit.”

But the biggest impact of the project, he said, “may be that it has improved how we feel about ourselves, the psychological aspects of rebuilding … feeling proud of ourselves again (and) looking better for visitors.”

Robert H. “Rob” Spilman, president and CEO of Bassett Furniture Industries, called the Smith River Small Towns Collaborative “the next piece in the puzzle” to improving the area.
He noted that Bassett Furniture has removed some of the old factories in the area and recently created a design center there.

The historic train depot in Bassett is slated for improvements as part of the project. Spilman called the building charming, and said it has a “nostalgia that resonates with people today.”

Also, the company has played a role in attempting to increase flow in the Smith River on weekends to attract canoeists, kayakers and tourists, he said. Also, Bassett’s new Bench Made facility has opened in part of another Bassett plant.

Step by step, the area is being transformed, he added.

Harvest Foundation board Chairman Chris Beeler recognized that as well. When he learned that the CDBG grant was funded, he felt “a sense of pride in our area, that others recognize and affirm the natural beauty and sense of community that we too often take for granted. After several years and a few roadblocks, our efforts have been rewarded,” he said.

He also said he was pleased that the grant brings recognition from those outside the region, particularly from an economic development perspective.

“‘Livability’ is important. We have a lot to offer, both to outsiders and our own citizenry,” he said.

Beeler noted that synergy exists here, and in this case it meant leveraging money and efforts.

“We accomplish so much more with a common goal, working together,” he said. “With limited resources, I think it’s become apparent that governments and industry are much more willing to work with us on collaborative projects.”

Adkins said he was excited and relieved that the grant was approved.

“This has been a long process. … (I am) happy to see some positive results,” he said.
The grant should mean infrastructure improvements to both Bassett and Fieldale, and it likely will lead to more grants and future improvements, Adkins said. There is “still a great deal of work for the collaborative to complete,” he added.

Douglas Jackson of the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) worked with the collaborative on the project.

“There is a lesson here for other communities in the time and thought it takes to put a solid plan together, and keep everyone working together around a collaborative plan,” he stated.

“My biggest takeaway is the importance of having a convener. The Harvest Foundation provided support and a framework for the co-chairs and the team. When you bring together several communities, having that trusted, independent party who is interested and invested is important. The Harvest Foundation played that role well,” Jackson added.

Bassett said the lesson of the grant approval is the need for patience, and that rewards will follow.

“It’s been over two years” of work, he said, adding that he understands that the next step will be pre-contract negotiation meetings to be held for the grant-funded work.

Or as Beeler observed, “… This is just the starting point.”