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The path to transforming a community begins with a change in mindset. That message was shared Thursday by Danville leaders with a group from a North Carolina city whose economy was once dominated by the furniture industry.
Seventeen community, business and elected leaders from Thomasville, N.C., traveled to Danville to learn about the transformation taking placing here, especially in the redevelopment of former factory, warehouse and retail buildings in the River District.
“You have to help people see the possible,” said Karl Stauber, president and CEO of the Danville Regional Foundation.
As a case in point, Stauber, Averett University President Dr. Tiffany Franks and city leaders talked about the transformation of the former Dimon headquarters at 512 Bridge St. into the Riverview campus for the university and offices for the foundation.
“This was an iconic building in this community,” Stauber said. “Danville was once the largest tobacco market. Dimon was the largest tobacco company in Danville. It was headquartered here.
“When Dimon left, this building sat vacant here for eight years or longer,” Stauber said. “The cooperative efforts of the Danville Industrial Development Authority, Danville Regional Foundation and Averett University saved this building.”
Franks said the decision to locate the university’s graduate and professional studies program in this building did not start as a singular project, but as part of a visioning process for the community.
“We had outgrown our space and we were in the market for new space,” Franks said. “We had the opportunity to go elsewhere in the city, but we felt like we needed to invest in things that could serve as a catalyst. We felt that if we could get people into this area, then it would take off.”
City Manager Joe King, Deputy City Manager David Parrish, and former mayor and current consultant to the city for economic development Linwood Wright talked about the city’s role in the Dimon project and the redevelopment of other buildings in the River District, including retail space along Main Street.
That role includes the use of the IDA in commercial redevelopment. King said Virginia allows industrial development authorities to have a wide berth in buying and selling property, making loans and entering into lease arrangements.
The Danville IDA is involved with 15 buildings in the River District, and it is the owner of the former Dimon building now occupied by Averett and the foundation.
Stauber called the conversion of the Dimon building “a case study of the possible.”
“Three partners had to come together to make this happen,” Stauber said. “Everything we do is a partnership. The city, Averett, the Chamber (Danville Pittsylvania County Chamber of Commerce) -- they are all critical partners.”
Thursday’s visit was coordinated by the Danville Pittsylvania County Chamber of Commerce and the Thomasville Area Chamber of Commerce.
The visiting delegation from Thomasville included Chamber President Doug Croft, Mayor Joe Bennett, City Manager Kelly Craver and business, education and community leaders.
Bennett said the city has lost 6,000 furniture manufacturing jobs in the past 10 years, so Thomasville is striving, much like Danville has been, to transition to a more future-oriented mix of businesses. Thomasville has initiated a strategic planning and visioning process, and as part of that process, it is examining communities that have gone through economic transformation.
Danville is the first city that Thomasville leaders chose to visit. Croft said they chose Danville because, “the issues we are interested in are issues that you have dealt with. You have had success in transforming old facilities and in redeveloping downtown.”
Croft and Bennett said the public-private partnerships that exist in Danville are impressive. Bennett said he also was impressed by the level of communication and enthusiasm found here.
“I’m going to take that back home with me,” Bennett said. “I am fired up and ready to go!”