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SoVaNow.com / July 10, 2019
From afar, it’s easy to give up on the Town of Chase City.

Thankfully there are plenty of folks in town who want no part of such a defeatist future — as evidenced by the recent community meeting to kick around ideas for spending the $500,000 contribution that Mac Bailey will make to Chase City in exchange for the town’s support for a solar farm rising up on Bailey’s land. First things first: let’s give a round of applause to Bailey for pledging such a generous donation to Chase City, with all the possibilities that the money entails.

What are these possibilities? The list got a lot longer — and more creative — with the June 25 town meeting. Ideas ranged from beefing up the tourist appeal of such community assets as MacCallum More Museum and Gardens and Bondurant Distillery, to developing and upgrading town parks and recreational sites and holding more youth programs, to establishing a downtown business incubator, and the beat goes on. Alas, while half a million bucks still counts as real money, it’s not nearly enough to finance all of the ideas — most of them imbued with real virtue — that people came up with. So how does the community decide which ones to pursue?

The short answer, of course, is that Bailey is setting up a committee to sort through the various proposals and identify the most promising ideas to fund. The fuller answer, however, is that any turnaround strategy for Chase City must contain a vision for what the town can realistically hope to become. A hub of industry? I think we can scratch that one. What about a vibrant bedroom community — one rich in arts, culture and recreation, offering a lively scene for young and old alike? That appears to be the thinking behind one of the more interesting proposals floated at the community meeting: rehabbing the downtown Mecca Theatre, which has lain dormant for decades. The building has been purchased by Bev Wood, who has moved back to Chase City in retirement and is working to bring back the Mecca as second-run movie theatre. Wood also is proposing to make the Mecca a focal point of local cultural life, culminating (perhaps) in a southern Virginia film festival.

I gotta admit, my first preference with any plan is for the money to go toward improving Chase City’s downtown. Restoring the Mecca certainly qualifies on this score; you can look to the Colonial Center in South Hill or The Prizery in South Boston to witness the possible benefits of such an approach. For all its problems, Chase City is like most small towns: blessed with many capable citizens (and business people) who more than anything just need a little wind at their backs — which in this case could take the form of a more attractive and appealing downtown commercial district.

Because $500,000 only goes so far, it might be best to treat this pot as seed money — a source of small grants or loans to help businesses fix up storefronts or renovate interior spaces (especially appealing, funky, historically significant spaces) and maybe even launch new businesses outright. The Town of South Boston has achieved good results with its SoBo Startup! initiative, a Shark Tank-like approach to revitalizing its downtown. The SoBo Startup! program challenged prospective merchants, restaurateurs and service providers to go through training offered by the Longwood Small Business Development Center (the regional director is county native Lin Hite), then submit business plans for the consideration of judges, with the payoff being $10,000 startup grants for the winning entries. Six businesses that earned awards in 2017 are still in operation. Not a bad result at all.

Chase City isn’t South Boston, but South Boston isn’t exactly New York City, either, and businesses that can develop niche audiences — through marketing flair, or superior products and services, or good old-fashioned elbow grease — can make it anywhere. (I can think of three or four locally-owned firms in Chase City that would be welcome in any community, whether the business is furniture and home fixtures, produce, grocery or butchery shops, or several other well-run ventures that have found and fulfill genuine consumer needs.) Identifying what works and what doesn’t in the marketplace is a trial-and-error process, but investing in broad improvements to downtown — and helping new businesses fill up empty storefronts — would seem like a reasonably promising approach for getting the most out of Mr. Bailey’s money. Invest and incentivize. It’s a simple way to stretch limited dollars.

Of course, Bailey has specified that a undetermined sum of money should go to fire, rescue and police (hard to argue with any of that), which leaves even less funding for any bold experiments to resuscitate Chase City’s downtown (or Chase City, period). But if nothing else, the community response to Bailey’s generosity underscores certain truths that most folks know in their bones, but which the powers-that-be are prone to ignore. One, focusing on broadly-shared, quality-of-life initiatives beats the heck out of dumping money into industrial parks, shell buildings and various other forms of client-specific corporate welfare; and two, listen to the grassroots, you might just learn something and hear some pretty excellent ideas.

There is a regional economic development group with real money — the Tobacco Commission — that seems to be finally figuring out the value of a bottoms-up approach to community revitalization, albeit only after nearly two decades of sinking big bucks into wishful ventures such as megasites that mostly have been megabusts. How likely is it that the discussion at an average Tobacco Commission meeting exists on a higher plane than what transpired two weeks ago in Chase City? Go read the meeting minutes sometimes, you’ll see. (The Virginia Tobacco Commission website can be found at http://www.revitalizeva.org). The Tobacco Commission is, and always has been, run by Southside and Southwest Virginia politicos. As shown by the quality of the recent discussion in Chase City, maybe it would be a better bet to trust in the wisdom of the people.

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