Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Up Through Downtown

I had a really cool experience this past weekend, and it's one that should encourage Martinsville residents of all political leanings. Last Sunday, the Martinsville-Henry County Historical Society and the Martinsville Uptown Revitalization Association sponsored a tour of buildings in Uptown that either have been or could be turned into loft apartments. At left, you'll see one I wouldn't mind getting my hands on if I had the money: the old Masonic lodge that also housed the C.W. Holt women's clothing store. Interesting side note, the first floor housed the Obama-Warner-Perriello campaign office. Last summer, area residents knew it as the building with the giant Obama face painted on the window, but now it sits empty--I could easily see our old office accommodating a retailer or even a bar or restaurant. On the top two floors, the interior is spacious, versatile, and vacant. The building needs repairs and modernizing, especially on the top floor. But the arched windows give a great view of Martinsville and the mountains in the distance. This could be an insanely cool apartment or two, not to mention that the first floor would be perfect for just about any retailer, bar or restaurant. 

One of the stops on the tour was a young family's emerging loft apartment, which only a few months ago was an empty office. There was a good story about it in Sunday's Martinsville Bulletin; apparently they renovated the space for less than $5000, saving money by DIYing the labor. I met the folks who live there now, and they told me about further renovations they plan to do down the road. Guess what, Martinsville--they're young, and they're returning to the area instead of sprinting away at full speed.

The takeaway lesson from all this was that small towns across America are beginning to rediscover their downtown areas, which have long been neglected due to the proliferation of malls and chain stores. As gas prices start climbing again, there's a lot of interest in returning to a more logical system--walkable urbanism. That's where urban design is headed, and that's what young professionals are beginning to expect when they look for a place to live. Revitalizing Uptown Martinsville will go a long way toward halting the "brain drain" of young people who feel they must leave town. Recently I wrote about stores leaving our local mall and leaving empty storefronts in its wake. Now is the time for local entrepreneurs to retake what was once a bustling center of the community and build new prosperity. Places like Uptown should take advantage of the megamalls' plight and breathe new life into their communities.

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