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Martinsville, Virginia 24115
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New vision for former social services building
Buyer has big plans for uptown site
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Directly above, Steve Rucker stands outside the Church Street side of the former social services building, which also once housed a Montgomery Ward department store. Rucker is buying the building and wants to restore it to its original facade and first floor as much as possible. (Bulletin photos by Mike Wray)
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Thursday, October 27, 2011

By GINNY WRAY - Bulletin Staff Writer

When some people look at the former social services building in uptown Martinsville, they see a 70-year-old building that has outlived its usefulness.

But not Steve Rucker. He sees a gem worth restoring to house businesses and professional offices, an antique store, museum displays and loft apartments.

Rucker won approval Tuesday from the Martinsville City Council and Henry County Board of Supervisors to buy the building on Church Street for $100,000.

The city and county are co-owners of the building, which housed a Montgomery Ward department store and Tultex headquarters before it became home to the merged Henry-Martinsville Social Services department. In 2010, the building's deterioration prompted social services' move to the former MZM/Athena building in the Clearview Business Park.

It has been vacant since then.

"We're very excited to have a good offer," City Manager Clarence Monday said, adding that Rucker's is the only offer received on the property in the nearly two years since it has been vacant.

Monday said Rucker's plans for the building will put it back on the city's tax rolls and fit with the master plan for the uptown area. "We're excited for him," Monday added.

On Wednesday, Rucker said he hopes to close on the purchase of the building before Thanksgiving and begin renovations in part of the basement, with a goal of moving the company he works for, RJE Telecom LLC, there in April. There is enough space there to possibly house two other professional entities, Rucker said.

He plans to develop an antique store on the first floor and replace the heating and air conditioning systems by the end of 2012.

About that same time, Rucker wants to create a museum area on the mezzanine for his large collection of telecommunications equipment and memorabilia, including items from B.L. Fisher, who founded Lee Telephone, which started providing telephone service in this area around 1930 and was the predecessor of Central Telephone Co. of Virginia. Rucker said he has old phones, switches, phone books and even prayer/songbooks Fisher used when he began each work week with a prayer with his employees.

Eventually - possibly in three to five years, depending on the economy and the community's growth - Rucker wants to create lofts on the building's top floor. He estimates five or six lofts could be configured on the 7,000-square-foot floor.

Rucker hopes to restore the main floor of the building and its facade to their original state as much as possible. He has an old photograph of the building when it housed Montgomery Ward and while the upstairs windows have been replaced and new windows across the front cannot exactly match the former ones, he said he will try to come as close as possible.

For instance, he has found that a drop ceiling in the building hides a tin ceiling. He would like to expose that.

Social services moved from the building because it had deteriorated, and Rucker said he knows there are problems with it, including some plumbing and moisture problems. Also, a new heating and air conditioning system and possibly some wiring are needed. But he said he has had inspectors and insurance people evaluate the building, and he will start working with an architect to develop a detailed plan for the work.

When asked what he expects to spend on the work, Rucker said, "A lot." He projects it will cost $150,000 to $200,000 to renovate the basement, first floor and mezzanine and replace the heating and air conditioning systems. Each loft would cost $70,000 to develop, he added.

Rucker has met with Wayne Knox, the city's director of community development; Ted Anderson, city fire marshal/building inspector; and Dennis Bowles, city utilities director, to outline his plans. He was highly complimentary of them, saying they took time to answer all his questions, gave him insight on what needs to be done and explained possible Enterprise Zone benefits and grants for which he may apply.

"This tells me Clarence Monday and the whole city is out to help people," Rucker said.

Rucker readily admitted that he is a novice on restoring an old building, and he said he will hire local craftsmen to make sure the work is done right and the building is safe.

What drives him is his vision and love for Martinsville. He moved here 13 years ago to work with CenturyLink. After retiring from the engineering manager position with that phone company, he became director of operations here for RJE, which is part of a nationwide company based in Fort Myers, Fla.

RJE does engineering for the cables laid by telephone companies, both inside and out, he said in June when he opened its office in the Jefferson Plaza in uptown Martinsville. The company works on projects nationwide out of the local office, he said.

In June, RJE had 12 employees here; now it has 18, Rucker said. It is so cramped at Jefferson Plaza that some employees work from home, and he expects his business will double by this time next year, he said.

That growth was the catalyst for his looking at the former social services building for more space at the suggestion of Dr. Mervyn King, who owns many properties uptown.

"But this is something I wanted to do all along," Rucker said, referring to opening an antique store and helping the area rebound.

He is encouraged by the opening of other antique and consignment shops uptown, and said he can see the area becoming a destination for people visiting the Virginia Museum of Natural History, the shops and museums uptown, and eating in local restaurants.

"If we can bring people in, it can build the community," Rucker said. "I like Martinsville. It's time to jump out there and do something" to help it rebound.


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