Henry County on Tuesday received a $700,000 Community Development Block Grant to partially fund the first phase of plans to revitalize Bassett, Fieldale and two other nearby areas in Henry County.
The grant was one 12 announced by State Secretary of Commerce and Trade Maurice Jones during an event at the Bassett train depot.
The towns of Bassett, Stanleytown, Fieldale and Koehler have faced a lot of challenges, Jones said, referring to the loss of furniture and textile jobs in the areas.
“The announcement today shows pride is still here” in these areas where people want to raise their families, work, go to school and maintain progress, he added.
The Smith River Small Towns Collaborative project, which has been more than two years in the making, targets improvements to Bassett, Stanleytown, Fieldale and Koehler. Jones said the project is the first of its kind in Virginia because it targets a “corridor of special places.”
“The idea is that, by tying to the river’s potential and making some basic physical improvements, the communities can create a climate that better supports existing businesses and entrepreneurs as well as attracts and retains residents,” according to Douglas Jackson of the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD). That department provided a planning grant for an early phase of the collaborative’s work, he said.
“The block grant application process is extremely competitive, and this project stood out as one that had strong support from the community and stakeholders to move forward and to make a difference for this county,” Jackson added.
The first phase of the project is expected to cost $3.2 million. It includes work on the Bassett town square’s north and south sides, façade improvements for businesses on Reed Stone Street nearest the town square, streetscape work at the entrance corridor to Reed Stone Street, Fairystone Park Highway and the train depot, all in Bassett.
In Fieldale, work will be done to the town square, community center (exterior) and vendors market. Façade work in the central business district and streetscape work in the central business district and entrance also will be done.
Referring to buildings such as the Bassett train depot, Jones said, “These kinds of buildings have incredible potential all across Virginia. You have shown vision” in plans to bring the building back to life.
Future phases will include more streetscape and façade improvements, trail links and the creation of venues to attract tourists in Bassett and Fieldale and signs in Stanleytown and Koehler.
In addition to the $700,000 Community Development Block Grant, additional funding for the first phase will be sought from other state and federal sources, community partners and area businesses.
The preliminary cost estimates for the entire $12.9 million revitalization improvements are: $7.6 million for Bassett, $4.9 million for Fieldale, $300,000 for Stanleytown and $15,000 for Koehler.
Jones said he was excited to see the collaborative’s project start, and “I can’t wait to come back and see what the future holds.”
Several speakers, including Jones, commended the Harvest Foundation for providing support and a framework for the collaborative. Henry County Board of Supervisors Chairman H.G. Vaughn singled out Harvest Foundation President Allyson Rothrock. “Without your leadership and vision, we wouldn’t be here today,” he said, adding that the grant announcement shows that when people work together “great things can happen in our community.”
Collaborative member Doug Stegall of Collinsville, who said he attended every meeting of the group, also praised Nancy Cox, senior program officer for the Harvest Foundation, who worked with the collaborative on the project. Cox is on medical leave from the foundation.
“She was the ringleader” for the Smith River Small Towns Collaborative,” Stegall said. “She kept it going.” He added that Cox was fun to work with and dedicated to the project and helping Henry County. “We all wish her well,” he said.
The Smith River Small Towns Collaborative was organized in April 2013 when the Harvest Foundation brought together community leaders to develop a vision for planning public spaces and destination tourism for the four towns that are connected geographically and historically by the Smith River.
After a series of meetings, the collaborative produced a map of the “15 Magical Miles” from Bassett south to Koehler. The 15 miles feature annual events, recreation, industrial heritage, historic buildings/sites, dining, shopping and lodging. These assets now are being promoted online through a partnership with the Tourism and Film divisions of the EDC.
The collaborative also identified priorities in two major categories: revitalization/curb appeal and needed/enhanced amenities. Priorities for each area were developed.
With funding from a Community Development Block Grant planning grant awarded in 2014 to Henry County by the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), Hill Studio of Roanoke created a master plan that included planning for public spaces, destination tourism, branding and marketing.
Also working with Hill Studio and the collaborative on the plan were Henry County, the EDC, Phoenix Community Development Corp., West Piedmont Planning District Commission, the Dan River Basin Association and Arnett Muldrow Associates.
Among those who spoke at Tuesday’s event were Bill Shelton, director of the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, who introduced Jones and called the local revitalization plan an “exemplary project”; Henry County Administrator Tim Hall; and Jeb Bassett, a co-chairman of the collaborative who spoke on behalf of that group and his co-chairman, Bill Adkins.
Comments during the event were interrupted twice by train whistles as Norfolk & Southern trains ran next to the depot.
“I love that sound. It’s the sound of commerce,” said Jones, who added that he has visited Henry County four or five times, more than any other community since he has been in the governor’s cabinet.
The 12 Community Development Block Grants announced Tuesday total more than $8.2 million. In addition to Henry County, they went to Buchanan, Dickenson and Wise counties and the towns of Damascus, Dungannon, Smithfield, Strasburg, Wytheville, Appomattox, Pulaski and White Stone.
Since 1982, the federally-funded CDBG program has been administered by the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development., according to a news release from the office of Gov. Terry McAuliffe. Virginia receives approximately $17 million annually for this grant program, it added.
“The CDBG program continues to help localities across the commonwealth make the necessary investments to stay competitive and thrive in today’s economic environment. These funds are critical in order to help our communities, particularly those in rural areas, become the best places to live, work and conduct business,” Jones stated in the release.