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SoVaNow.com / August 22, 2013Poor Chase City. The downtrodden town was once renowned as the commercial hub of Mecklenburg County, before Interstate 85 was built and business activity in our neighboring county shifted east towards South Hill. Today, not only does Chase City suffer the indignity of storefront after storefront of gathered dust, but the roof has begun to cave in, too. Literally.
Earlier this month, a historic cornerstone of the town’s business district — the old Leggett store building — suffered a roof collapse. A condemnation order quickly followed. It’s early in the process, and the building’s owner has expressed some interest in fixing the roof, but it’s hard to work up much hope that expensive repairs will commence at a building that has sat empty for years. More than likely, the old Leggett’s will have to come down, leaving a yawning gap in the middle of downtown. A new parking lot is the mid-range preferred scenario, somewhere between attractive greenspace and a vacant lot peppered with rubble.
It’s easy to walk up and down Chase City’s streets and lament the signs of blight and absence of foot traffic, but it’s not like Mecklenburg’s proverbial North Star is alone in seeing its downtown district turn south. Large sections of our downtown long ago emptied out, with no real prospect for revival. Yet if misery loves company, towns such as South Boston and Chase City need never fear the ravages of loneliness. Rural communities across the country are struggling mightily to keep their local economies from going hollow. Here in our corner of Virginia, there’s only one downtown that I would describe as outright happenin’ — Farmville, which has a way-cool state park-slash-biking and hiking trail running right through the commercial district, to go along with a furniture outlet operation (Green Front) that swallows up an enormous amount of warehouse space and, of course, a college. This is not exactly a model that can be easily replicated elsewhere.
What realistically can be done to revitalize smalltown America? It should be apparent by now that the answer involves more than the usual palliatives — streetscape projects, enterprise zones, pavilions, parks and the like. Chase City actually has a very attractive downtown district, and the town’s leaders have done themselves proud by integrating the Estes Center, their equivalent of the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center, into the life of the community. (In similar fashion, the SVHEC and The Prizery form the heart of modern-day downtown South Boston). Yet for all the money and effort that has gone into primping the main drag, the last time anyone seriously entertained the notion of economic revival for Chase City, downtown wasn’t even part of the conversation. Instead, town fathers pinned their hopes on a proposed ethanol plant and the jobs it was supposed to bring. As turns out, the project was as ill-fated as they come. Chase City was jilted, the City of Hopewell got the plant, and it flopped almost immediately. Yet the underlying point was sound: Without jobs, rural America has next to no chance to arrest its downward spiral.
This simple fact makes the tone of our current economic discourse all the more frustrating: Steps to create jobs now and into the future — by doing basic stuff, such as investing in schools, roads and other infrastructure — have taken a back seat to the politics of austerity that remains all the rage in Washington (and in Richmond). Combine this punish-the-poors economic mindset with extreme, take-no-prisoners political gridlock, and the results are so mind-bogglingly bad that you end up with a Congress that can’t even pass a Farm Bill for crying out loud.
On the flip side of the coin, the thrust of economic policy, particularly on the monetary side (i.e., that part which is governed by the Federal Reserve) all too often acts to prop up bloated banks and quick-buck investment houses and elevates the interests of finance over manufacturing, capital over labor, Wall Street over Main Street. There are a number of economic commentators, from Kevin Phillips to David Cay Johnston to Dean Baker to dozens in between, who write about this stuff all the time, and who are much more knowledgeable and eloquent on the subject than yours truly could ever hope to be. Yet you don’t have to possess a Ph.D. in economics to understand how the playing field is often tilted against small communities. Just to take one obvious example, why are Chase City’s struggling retailers required to charge a sales tax with each transaction while high-flying Amazon.com is not?
It would be a great help if manufacturing and small business were accorded a higher position on the economic policy ladder and were allowed to operate in an environment more conducive to growth. Dean Baker, whose Beat the Press blog (http://www.cepr.net/index.php/blogs/beat-the-press) is essential reading, writes frequently and convincingly on the role that Wall Street-backed high dollar policies play in discouraging the rise of American manufacturing. A revitalized manufacturing sector would go a long ways towards returning Chase City and other small towns to their former vitality. Yet until such time as Washington chooses to listen — yeah, I know — the best hope for small communities remains what it’s always been: a stubborn refusal to shrivel up and die. You see this all the time in ongoing efforts to revitalize downtowns and in the strivings of small businesses to fill consumer niches that present themselves in our Walmart-dominated world. Imagine what could happen if only the little guys got some help from above. Whether it’s roofs or communities one is talking about, collapse occurs as a consequence of deliberate action, not because fate requires that it must be so.
On a related note, I have a hard time understanding how anyone could not welcome South Boston’s effort to restore the old Randolph Hotel to its former glory. Sure, the town took the slightly unusual step of purchasing the Randolph (more or less on the cheap, using grant funding) in the hope of finding a developer who would take over the hotel and run it as a profit-making venture, but this is one instance where a public-private partnership would seem not only appropriate, but essential. Nothing good will happen with the Randolph sitting empty year after year, as folks in Chase City surely can attest. As it happens, we also have an example of what could result if the redevelopment effort is successful — the Craddock Terry Hotel in Lynchburg, a real gem in the middle of the Hill City. There’s little doubt that Town Hall will need to catch a few breaks for its vision of a reborn Randolph Hotel to become a reality. Yet if ever there were a case of nothing ventured, nothing gained, this would seem to be it. You want a downtown renaissance? Putting empty buildings to good use would be a great start.