What began as a dream to revitalize downtown Chilhowie was celebrated Thursday as the finale of a $1.3 million effort to turn that dream into reality.
Many participants in the Chilhowie Downtown Revitalization Project gathered on the rejuvenated Main Street to talk about the project and cut a ribbon in celebration.
Town Manager John Clark summed up the sentiments in a comment related to another historic event.
“This project reminds me of the Apollo 13 movie with Tom Hanks that came out around 1995 involving a failed attempt to fly to the moon and the desperate attempts to get the crew back to Earth alive,” Clark said. “A PR/top administrator turned to the flight director and said, ‘This is going to be the greatest disaster in NASA’s history.’ The flight director shot back and replied, ‘With all due respect sir, this is going to be our greatest moment in history.’”
“Well, this project (in Chilhowie) cannot arguably be called the greatest success in the town’s history,” Clark said, “but it can certainly be called a crowning achievement.”
The many aspects of the project – from storm drainage improvement, to new sidewalks, lighting and future façades on Main Street, paving, removal of an 80,000-square-foot abandoned factory facility, construction of a farmers market, signage and branding – were praised and celebrated by those who have played a part.
“This has been an exciting time. It is an exciting time for Chilhowie,” said Kelly Spencer-Hill, a former town council member who has spearheaded this project from the beginning. She outlined a timeline of the first meeting of the Downtown Chilhowie Revitalization Committee in June 2014 to the beginning of construction in the summer of 2018 to Thursday’s celebration.
The revitalization project started with $35,000 in planning grant funds from the Department of Housing and Community Development to develop a master plan, written by Mount Rogers Planning District Commission. That plan was completed in December 2015. In September 2016, then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced approval of more than $9.5 million in CDBG funding for 13 projects in Virginia - including $999,989 for the town of Chilhowie for downtown revitalization. The town also earned a $3,000 grant for a mini-project during the waiting period on the larger grant. With that money, the committee developed a map of the town and surrounding area.
Chilhowie was also awarded a Site Assessment and Planning Grant of $50,000 under the Virginia Brownfields Assistance Fund for environmental site assessments, including testing for lead paint and asbestos, and a building demolition and grading plan for the former Superior Mills building on East Lee Highway.
“And here we are three years later celebrating so much,” Spencer-Hill said of all that has been accomplished since the grant was approved.
The many people who participated in many different ways making the project possible, said Clark, include government representatives, town councils and mayors, town staff, designers, engineers and contractors, business owners, and townspeople for their support and patience throughout the process.
Business owners were especially praised by the town because it is for them that the revitalization project is directed, to help them succeed by encouraging patronage and to encourage new businesses in the downtown area.
Tom and Kyra Bishop of Berry Iron and Metal Company were instrumental is supporting the stormwater drainage project, which has been a boon to those businesses suffering from flooding due to stormwater runoff. They donated an easement to the town for a 42-inch bore that went from Highway 107 under the railroad tracks and came out in the Berry’s lot, went through the recreation park to the river.
Clark said while you can’t see the pipes, this effort was a major part of the project. The pipe under Main Street is about 32 inches, and there are new sidewalks, curb and gutter.
This has been the most multi-faceted project Clark said he has ever dealt with, with a hundred potential stumbling blocks that could have slowed or stopped the progress but never did. The cooperation among the various agencies and workers made it possible and successful. He expects the façade improvement of Main Street businesses to start in a couple weeks with the north side of the street completed by year’s end and the south side early next year.
“This project can be an example to Washington politics, and unfortunately sometimes Richmond politics,” Clark said. “We in local government in Virginia don’t do things in a liberal way or a conservative way; we do things in order to help our citizens, work with different people and agencies in a cooperative ‘can do’ way.”
The group heard praise and congratulations from several agency and government representatives, and was especially entranced by the words of local business owners.
“We are drawing people to Chilhowie,” said Michelle Widener of ColorWorks that opened in February. She has had customers come from as far as North Carolina and Kentucky because they heard of her place. She and others are encouraging townspeople to come up with ideas and support more businesses opening in town. “I hope it continues,” she said.
Krista Wyatt-Gollehon said she and her husband bought Curves two years ago and continue to operate the fitness business in the same location it has been in for 15 years. She is grateful to be a part of downtown business and hopes the attention being given to the town will bring more business.
Kelli Ward and Amy Shortt with Boots & Bangles are thankful for the support they have been given with their business and have been encouraging to other potential business owners. “We have so many ideas to help Main Street come alive,” they said.
A moving statement was offered by David Richards, who grew up in Chilhowie and moved away but came back, helped with the grant for the tourism center, and about 15 years ago opened his own real estate business. He said he has watched the efforts of other business owners start up. There are a lot of people behind the scenes helping this revitalization happen, he said, and they need to be recognized.
Richards likened the current revitalization efforts to the former Main Street USA program. The country has gone from small main street businesses to grocery store-anchored plazas, to malls, to the big box power centers, and mixed use development, back to the small business main street economy growing nationwide.
“I don’t know about you,” he said, “but I find hope in it.”