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Martinsville, Virginia 24115
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City to seek state grant
For Northside improvements

Thursday, February 13, 2014

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

Martinsville officials plan to pursue state funds to improve a neighborhood on the city’s north side.

The project would target the neighborhood surrounding Franklin and Dillard streets and Warren Court. The area is near Liberty Fair Mall and just north of Commonwealth Centre, the redeveloped former Tultex factory.

Details of the project are not yet finalized. However, Assistant City Manager and Director of Community Development Wayne Knox said he hopes the city can get funds to refurbish at least 30 of the 44 houses in the neighborhood.

Martinsville can apply to the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) for up to $1 million. Knox estimated, though, that the city will seek a “community improvement grant” of about $880,000.

He surmised that the project has a 50-50 chance of being funded.

The DHCD awarded the city a $30,000 planning grant for the project in September.

However, Knox said the state often prefers not to get involved in projects for areas — such as the one targeted — in which most of the houses are rental properties. It can be hard to reach and deal with “investor owners,” he said, especially those who live outside the community.

Some owners of properties in the targeted area have “not been putting money into their properties to keep them up to snuff,” Knox said.

A document that he furnished to the council shows five of the structures are so dilapidated they are not suitable for rehab. Another 10 have “major” deficiencies that warrant “substantial rehab or clearance.” Many others need improvements beyond regular maintenance.

Deficiencies of specific structures are not detailed in the document. Knox could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Council members toured the neighborhood on Monday. Based on what they saw, Councilman Mark Stroud said it is obvious that it “needs help.”

Preliminary plans also call for the city to acquire some of the properties — both vacant ones and well as some with structures on them. Knox told the council that the city would raze those structures and not replace them.

“One million dollars is not enough” to build new houses, he said.

“Nothing prevents us from selling these lots” and the new owners then could build houses on them, said Vice Mayor Gene Teague.

Knox agreed. He also said the city might transfer vacant lots to the adjacent property owners so they can expand their tracts.

Some owners of properties in the neighborhood have told the city they are not interested in their houses undergoing improvements or they will upgrade their properties themselves because they do not trust government projects, according to Knox.

Councilwoman Sharon Brooks Hodge urged caution with the project.

“I don’t want us to be benefiting some of the same landlords we’re having problems with” in other parts of the city, such as those whose rental dwellings have received complaints from nearby residents, she said.

The council set two required public hearings — Feb. 25 and March 11 — on the project.

The city must submit its grant application by March 26.

Also Tuesday, the council granted a special use permit to Sharon Martin so her home child care center at 1006 Independence Drive can care for as many as 12 children. She needed the permit to comply with updated city zoning rules.

During a public hearing in which nobody else spoke, Martin said her center has operated for more than 20 years and she has never heard complaints.

“We’ve heard nothing but good things” about the center, Knox said of city officials.

The center meets city code requirements and has been recognized by the state for its curriculum, teaching methods, cleanliness and “overall positive environment for children,” a document provided to the council shows.

Hodge congratulated Martin for having a successful business.

The council heard from Mark Heath, president and chief executive officer of the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp. (EDC), who made brief remarks about various economic development-related issues.

Heath said he is “cautiously optimistic” about Commonwealth Crossing Business Centre.

The industrial park is planned off U.S. 220 south of Ridgeway. County and city officials have been trying to convince the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to grant permits needed for its development.

Heath also said the EDC is in discussions with a company about a film that would be shot locally.

Teague told Heath that since the Big Chair landmark has been retired, the uptown business district needs something to help attract people there.

Heath said he hopes the chair can be repaired enough so it can be shown to the public on special occasions.

He added that the New College Institute building under construction should draw people uptown now.

The council also:

• Adopted a resolution to apply to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development program for a grant to replace an emergency power generator at the city shop/warehouse complex on Fishel Street.

Officials said the current emergency generator is crucial to city operations during power failures but it is having mechanical problems.

It is hard to find replacement parts for the device due to its age, said City Manager Leon Towarnicki.

Replacing the generator would cost about $55,000, according to a report. Towarnicki said the grant would cover about 35 percent of the cost, and the city would pay the rest.

• Heard from city resident Ural Harris, who voiced concerns about city electric rates.

Mayor Kim Adkins said the city’s rates are lower than those paid by residents and businesses in surrounding localities.


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