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Block party in a box makes debut

South Boston News
Revelers enjoy a pop-up party in Clarksville Friday night.
SoVaNow.com / August 25, 2021


From the moment the colorful and artfully-painted Better Block in a Box arrived in Clarksville on Thursday, there was a buzz around town — what’s inside the box, and why would someone leave a cargo container at Fifth Street and Virginia Avenue?

By Friday afternoon, the answer was clear: The big metal box had all the elements needed to hold a block party. There were tables and chairs, umbrellas, strings of lights, wooden checkers, chess and tic-tac-toe games, inflatable pillows, a sound system, and pop-up movie screen.

It’s a party in a box created by the Better Block Foundation and a gift from Microsoft Corporation.

As this was first time this container and its contents would be used, a little prep work was needed. Throughout the day Thursday and into the late afternoon Friday, members of the Dallas-based Better Block Foundation and a handful of community volunteers unpacked the box, stained and assembled the wood pieces, strung lights, set up tables, chairs and umbrellas and readied the movie screen and sound system.

By 4:30 p.m. — when Microsoft Program Manager Kelly Arnold and Clarksville Town Manager Jeff Jones cut the ribbon for the inaugural Better Block event — the work was complete. The previously quiet Lake Life Live stage area had been converted into a pop-up party site, complete with temporary art on the side of the nearby Russell building and a vibrant dance floor with an easily removable design because it was made using multi-colored masking tape.

Joining the festivities and providing food were Les and Nicole Cooper, owners of Cooper’s Landing Inn and Traveler’s Tavern and The Coop mobile food truck. There were also local craft beers from Buggs Island Brewing Company, wines from Three Sisters of Shiney Rock and Woodbine vineyards, and whiskeys from Springfield Distillery.

Better Block — an urban design non-profit, whose goal is to provide communities the tools and resources needed to activate spaces and bring people together — was originally approached about bringing the better block-in-a-box concept to a rural community by Jim Hanna, director of Microsoft Datacenter Community Development Urban Planning.

Hanna said one of the key pillars of community prosperity is finding a way to elevate the lives of the people who live there. “We [Microsoft Corporation] want to attract people to live and play here where they work, to revitalize downtowns.”

Hanna said Microsoft is well aware of the obstacles it faces in encouraging their employees to move to rural communities where the company has its data centers. The challenge is not unique to Mecklenburg County. “What organizations like Better Block Foundation do is to create instant pop-ups to help community planners and others to see their downtown areas as a place for fun. If this sparks some ideas, then that’s good.”

For two days — Friday and Saturday night — workers from Microsoft mingled with area residents over drinks and food, listened to music, played games, and watched a movie outdoors in downtown Clarksville.

On Sunday, everything was returned to the container so it could be shipped to its next site. On Sept. 10, the party in a box will move to Chase City for a similar community event. After that, the box — a converted shipping container — will be stored by Mecklenburg County Public Schools until it is needed for another community gathering.

Hanna acknowledged that Microsoft’s overarching motivation for working with groups like Better Block Foundation is to “get more people to live in Mecklenburg County and to become contributing members of the community.”

Late last year Microsoft purchased around 900 acres in three industrial parks in Mecklenburg County, where the computing giant plans to expand its existing data center operations. Microsoft currently operates a 1,100,000 square foot facility in Boydton and is constructing two more data storage complexes near the county seat. The industrial park land deals set the table for a massive future expansion of cloud computing operations for Microsoft in Mecklenburg.

“We would love for them [the people who work at these cloud sites] to live here. First, we must elevate the site in their eyes to be a destination,” said Hanna.

Clarksville’s Better Block party was only the second street event Microsoft has been involved with — and the first in a rural area. The initial Microsoft/Better Block event was held in Quincy, Wash., where a population of 7,600 lives in the city and another 90,000 people reside in the surrounding county.

Hanna said, “Microsoft is excited to collaborate with the Better Block Foundation to give people in Mecklenburg County a glimpse into how more permanent infrastructure improvements can help promote the area as a destination for families and visitors.

“We can be the conversation starter.”

One reason Hanna said he got involved in community development and urban planning was to work with people. He said he enjoys uniting folks with organizations that help them “get unstuck,” by developing the plans and “goal posts” with actionable steps and timelines needed to turn downtown corridors into places that are livable and walkable.

That’s one reason he reached out to the Better Block Foundation. Their mission is to “create beautiful places that activate spaces to bring people together.” In addition to the Better Block in a Box project, the foundation has worked with communities to put together a plan for one block in one neighborhood, and then brought that plan to life for a two-day demonstration. During the demonstration, the community gets to see how the concept works or won’t work. Frequently, these two-day demonstrations set in motion a next step — that turns elements from the temporary project into something more permanent.

If Clarksville’s better block party was the spark needed to create a sense of possibility for the town and Mecklenburg County, Hanna says the pop-up event will go down as a success.

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