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Visiting the Villes: Farmville, Danville, Martinsville, Hillsville

Here I am standing with Pastor Hairston in the sanctuary of High Street Church where I slept on these pews 55 years ago.

July 13, 2018

Several days ago I wrote about my planned ten day trip to two of the "extremes" of Virginia:  Southside and Southwest.  Augie Wallmayer had written a book about the regions and the extreme challenges they face after the loss of the manufacturing and coal industries. My husband Hunt has spent his whole career in economic development in Latin America and I feel that as a state senator I have a responsibility for all of Virginia. So, we decided to spend our vacation getting to know those regions better.

Dozens of readers asked to know more about our experiences.  With the hope others will be intrigued as well, here is a brief report on our first four stops. 

FARMVILLE was our first stop.  We only had a few hours there and I didn't plan ahead very well.  Farmville has a large ICE Detention Center that we hoped to tour, using my credentials as a state senator.  We knew getting in would be a long shot. The Center is forbidding from the outside:  high walls and razor wire everywhere.  No photos allowed under threat of arrest.  Much to my surprise we were able to pass through security and into the Center.  Then we were stopped before we entered the detainee areas.  A very nice and professional ICE employee explained that it was against policy to allow official visits inside the facility without making prior arrangements. However, we did learn a lot from him just talking in the reception area.  

A couple days later, I received an invitation to return to the Center and actually go inside.  I plan to do so in August.  And, I am going to invite other Northern Virginia legislators to join me.

We spent an hour or so walking around the downtown.  Farmville has huge tobacco warehouses filled with furniture and several cute shops.  We totally enjoyed our dinner at Charley's on a huge deck overlooking the Appomattox River.  

DANVILLE:  I was especially eager to visit Danville. I was briefly a civil rights worker there in June, 1963, right before "Bloody Monday". "Bloody Monday" was a police riot that injured dozens of peaceful demonstrators and sent dozens more to jail.  It was my first experience with a brutal, segregationist power structure.  Those days were extremely tense -- I was knocked out briefly -- and I have often wondered how Danville was doing both in race relations and economically.

Two men put together an in-depth two days for us. Sherman Saunders and I met in Richmond twenty-five years ago.  His family was involved in the "Bloody Monday" demonstrations. Sherman worked for Community Action and became the first African-American mayor of Danville (he currently is on City Council). Karl Stauber moved to Danville to head up the Danville Regional Foundation a decade ago.  These two men put together an amazing, informative two-day tour of Danville. Here's a picture of Sherman, Karl and the two of us at one of Danville's revitalized downtown restaurants.

First impressions of Danville now are very positive.  It is obviously a community that cares about appearances.  There is a new fountain as you cross the river, murals depicting local history adorn downtown walls, and impressive flower baskets hang from every streetlight.  The old tobacco warehouses are being converted to condos, offices, and restaurants.  The shopping district has come back to life.

This is a far cry from the city a few years ago when Dan River Mills closed down. Danville's unemployment rate hit almost twenty percent and thousands of families moved out. Those who remained tended to be less educated and less employable in an evolving economy.

So how did this transformation happen?  I met with several business and civic leaders. Several observations:  These people deeply care about their hometown.  When many people left the community once the mills closed, they stayed.  They have learned to cooperate with each other and respect each other. They are determined to attract new businesses and work together to do so.  They are focused on joint objectives.  For example, they have discovered a niche with small British startups.  And, they have utilized every possible state program (the historic restoration tax credit for example).

Another state-sponsored program is The Institute for Advanced Learning and Research.  Headed by Mark Gignac, it occupies a strikingly modern building that serves as a learning center for high school students, a research institute for botany and other topics, a community meeting place, and a catalyst for attracting industry.  The IALR is attracting small and medium sized business from around the globe -- they have an adjoining industrial park that is bustling with new construction.

An unusual asset that Danville has is the Danville Regional Foundation.  When the Community Hospital was sold to a national for-profit chain, the proceeds (over $200 million) were put into the foundation. So far it has invested over $100 million in community projects and, by wisely investing its capital, still has over $220 million left. They take a long view on economic development and leadership training.  CEO Karl Stauber offers creative leadership and networking opportunities. He demonstrated this by bringing together a broad group of Danville leaders who explained to us how they collaborate with each other to achieve their common development objectives.

I really feel Danville has turned the corner.  If I were young again and looking for a hometown, I would definitely consider Danville.  

But the social problems run deep.  Traditionally, education has not been particularly valued.  With a well-paying factory job guaranteed, why get degrees? The segregationist past has inflicted deep wounds and resentments.

The most discouraging thing I saw was the damage done by a slumlord living in Roanoke named Sparky.  Sparky is a felon who is buying up large numbers of small mill homes and, without any improvements, renting them out to poor individuals. He never improves any of the houses.  And, he doesn't pay his taxes. Whole blocks have been devastated by Sparky.  He is a disgrace.

The schools are struggling which discourages families from moving into the city. There are beautiful homes available for prices that seem unbelievable to a Northern Virginian.  You could buy a large Victorian home on Millionaire's Row (real name!) for under $300,000.  On the other hand, there are several really good restaurants, including a superb Thai one.

One of the highlights of the trip was a walking tour with Joyce Wilburn.  She escorted us through the old black middle-class neighborhoods and then along Millionaires' Row.  She is a wealth of information and can be reached through the Danville Historical Society.

The second evening had a special meaning for me!  Coincidental to our visit, the Commonwealth's Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Commission was having a commemoration of Dr. King's visit to Danville fifty-five years ago. The meeting was at High Street Church where I slept two nights while doing civil rights work.  So many memories overwhelmed me while sitting in those pews.  Several leaders of the demonstrations spoke to a very large audience.  Here I am speaking to the group along with Senator Jennifer McClellan, who chairs the Commission, and several civil rights leaders.

While sitting in the church all these years later, I realized the deep and lasting impression being in Danville had on me and how it opened my nineteen-year-old eyes to the many injustices in our county.

MARTINSVILLE:  What a day we had in Martinsville! Fortunately, we had a contact in Martinsville who organized a most informative day.  Leanna Blevins is the Executive Director of the New River Institute.  She and I serve on the Southern Regional Education Board together.  When I told her about our trip, she organized a jam-packed day with many of the leaders of Martinsville, Henry County, and Patrick County.

We toured the New River Institute.  It is a most creative educational facility and made me wish I were back in school. Everything is very hands-on and practical.  Students learn advanced manufacturing skills on site.  The Institute has a varied curriculum that is very in tune with local needs. Providing students with credentials, often instead of degrees, is a goal.  Like Danville, Martinsville suffered when manufacturing (mostly furniture) largely left the area.  And, like Danville, there was not a tradition of seeking higher education. 

We also had a long distance telemedicine conversation with stroke experts at UVA in Charlottesville. They are instituting collaborations with local hospitals and even EMS to speed treatment to stroke victims. 

Martinsville has been hard hit by the opioid crisis.  A local doctor is serving time for over-prescribing.  Partly as a result, the community has really come together to combat the problem.  Law enforcement, community services, social services, the hospital, health department and child protective services are all working collaboratively.  Leanna set up a lunch for us with representatives of all these agencies.  Because we have expanded Medicaid, the overall mood of these professionals was optimistic that access to healthcare will improve in their community.

Like Danville, Martinsville has a foundation that was funded by the sale of the community hospital. It is called the Harvest Foundation. DeWitt House is the senior program officer and he impressed me with their many initiatives.  The one that most captivated me covers complete education costs for any local resident who goes on to higher education.

We ended our day in Martinsville in high-level discussions with the education leaders of the community. Inspiring students whose families have not particularly valued formal education is a challenge they all face. Resources for the schools are very limited - much more so than in Northern Virginia.  Again, it was obvious that education leaders at all levels -- pre-K through Community College -- were working together to maximize opportunities.

HILLSVILLE:  Our stop in Hillsville was very personal.  A couple of weeks before the 2016 elections I was in Hillsville for a meeting, and went out for dinner at The Mason Jar, a local restaurant, where I was threatened by another customer. The bartender protected me, and I wanted to thank her again. 

I was there then to visit the Hillsville Training Center for severely intellectually disabled individuals, which was about to be closed.  I wanted to be sure they were going to receive appropriate care as they were dispersed in communities.  

The only restaurant in town seemed to be The Mason Jar.  I don't usually sit alone at bars--honestly!  The couple next to me seemed really nice and we started chatting. When it turned to the election and I told them I supported Hillary and Medicaid Expansion it became very ugly. He started banging his fists on the bar and shouting.  His face was turning red.  

The bartender very calmly told him to leave her bar and not to act like that.  I was so impressed by her.  And, ever since, have wanted to thank her.

She was on duty and I was able to thank her.  She really defused a potentially dangerous situation.

Now,  on to Southwest Virginia..................