Steve Rucker is making a $300,000 bet it will.
That’s his low-ball estimate of what he’s putting into the building at 20 E. Church St., Martinsville — better known as the former Henry-Martinsville Social Services department building.
For years, it had a bad reputation for being dilapidated, but for Rucker, it was love at first sight.
“It was really kind of a mess,” he said of the building when he bought it.
In the areas he hasn’t finished working on, the atmosphere is cramped and desolate. Neon lights give a cold, eerie glow that invites headache; the carpet is stained; the ugly dropped ceilings and warren-like room divisions give a claustrophobic effect.
What Rucker has accomplished on the main floor brings gives a hint of what’s to come.
A gleaming wood floor stretches across the way. The walls are painted a soft ivory. Elegant tin ceiling tiles are 19 feet above the floor. Dropped light fixtures give off an inviting glow.
In the center back third of the room, an imposing double staircase leads to the mezzanine level upstairs. That area will become a showcase of Rucker’s interests. He expects to have a telephone museum open by autumn.
Though the building is still rough around the edges (and most of its three and a half floors), it’s already hosted its first event — the wedding of Risa Odum and Chris Clark. By the end of the year, Rucker hopes the main floor will house an shop or mall for classic antiques.
Before that can happen, though — “We’ve had a couple of inquiries about other events” people would like to hold in the building, Rucker said with a grin. They include antique auctions and historical displays.
The front of the building, which first was a Montgomery Ward store, faces Church Street. There used to be windows, but now it’s a solid wall. The building is entered through an unassuming door in a dark entry.
Rucker plans to put windows along the front wall and make the entryway grand and inviting.
The basement, which is entered through the back of the building, could house specialty shops and a business center, he said.
Only the top floor is free from immediate plans, but Rucker is toying with the idea of renting it out for office space. It housed the DSS executives’ offices so is well prepared to take on that role again, he said.
“It’s all set up” with systems of fire suppression, electricity and exit signs, he said. The bathrooms on the top floor, as in the whole building, are super, he added.
Learning about the past
While he’s been working on the building, Rucker has enjoyed having people stop by to chat. “It’s been kind of neat to listed to people” talk about “the heydays of what Martinsville used to be like,” he said.
As an area resident for only 13 or 14 years — he and his wife, Kathy, live in Stanleytown — he knows more about the area from stories than from experience.
“I’d like to see the downtown to come back to life,” he said.
“Good golly, everybody wants industry” as a way to revitalize the region, “but if we build something more to have a tourist industry,” we’re halfway there in terms of what’s already available, he said. He listed the Speedway, area parks and trails, the music industry and the Smith River Sports Complex as attractions for tourists.
A positive example
Rucker has seen an exciting parallel in Winter Park, Fla., where he used to live. The old town south of Orlando “basically just died down,” he said.
When he visited last week, he was impressed to see that “all of a sudden, the area is exploding” with improvements and activity, he said. The buildings have new facades, and a walking trail winds through the area.
He thinks Martinsville can do the same, but with one important advantage — the Martinsville area is full of amenities and tourist attractions. In Winter Park, “every store front is full,” and there aren’t any industries or attractions.
Bringing a downtown back to life “takes a group effort, and that’s what I’d like to see here,” he said. “It’s just (happening) a little slower than Type-A personalities would like to see it.”
Rucker is propelled along by the enthusiasm of people around him. Emily Hughes, who runs the Junkbabies shop next to his building, “is very energetic and positive” and has accomplished a lot with her business since she got it started, he said.
Dr. Mervin and Virginia King, advocates of uptown development, helped him analyze the uptown area. In fact, it was they who suggested he buy the building.
He was interested right away and purchased the building for $100,000 in the fall, he said. Even with doing most of the work himself, he expects he’ll have an additional $200,000 to $225,000 put into the building before it’s finished.
“Everything I heard was this place was about to fall down,” he said. “I haven’t seen the first signs” of any such weakness.
His experience working with city officials has been fantastic, he said.
“Everybody in the city have been very helpful, making sure I don’t all into any of the pitfalls” that befall do-it-yourselfers, he said. They guide him along “to make sure that what I did was right, cost effective and doable.”
He also is impressed with the work ethic of people, such as Randy Washington and John Bryant, who have worked on the building. They and other local workmen “know what they’re doing and they’re fast,” he said. “That has been really impressive and something I’ve not been used to” from other communities.
Rucker, 58, is retired from a 33-year career with CenturyLink. Four years ago, he opened an engineering consulting firm which is housed in Jefferson Plaza. His wife, formerly the office manager at Nelson Automotive, helps him.
The couple have two sons, Matthew and Michael, and a 2 1/2 year old granddaughter, “the love of our life.”
“Ever since I was a young man, this is something I’ve wanted to do,” he said.
His family were “big antiquers,” and Rucker’s first job, when he was 16, was at an antique store. He wasn’t paid in cash but rather in antiques.
He also grew up doing renovations, learning from a young age from his father. “My golly, he used to work me to death,” Rucker recalled. “I spent hours pulling nails out of boards.”
Now he’s spending hours pulling out entire boards, walls and sections of a three and a half story building.
“It’s definitely been a labor of love,” but exciting to see his dreams “grow and evolve,” Rucker said.