The Housing Man’s attention now turns to his own home – working his way down his wife’s “honey-do” list of chores now that he has retired.
But that’s just for starters. Former Martinsville Community Development Director and Assistant City Manager Wayne Knox, aka “The Housing Man,” whose last day in city hall was June 28, said it probably won’t be long before he finds something else to do.
However, although other localities are calling this 72-year-old to do for them what he has done for Martinsville, he won’t get into such intense work again, he said – after all, he is retired. It more likely would be some kind of community service that catches his attention, but he’s in no hurry right now, he said – he just won’t like being idle for long.
“He’s done a tremendous job for the community and the city,” said Jim Peverall, whose house on Aaron Street is the one closest to the charred and twisted ruins of the American of Martinsville factory.
That factory burned on the day in 1995 Knox came to Martinsville to interview for the position of director of community development. The American of Martinsville warehouse, across Aaron Street from it, burned in 2004. The men had a chat Wednesday morning on that road.
“I don’t know how much money he’s brought in” to the city through grants, “clearing, developing, cleaning up in the community,” Peverall said after the men’s chat.
Knox smiled and said “a lot more got done quicker” as a result of Peverall’s involvement as a concerned citizen.
Peverall said it’s thanks to “an open-door policy by Mr. Knox” that Martinsville citizens such as himself have had input and influence on improvements. “Sometimes you don’t find that in government.”
Looking back at his time in Martinsville, Knox said he feels like he has “lived up to the definition of ‘community development.’”
The field involves a great more than just housing, he said, though housing is a large part of it.
The city’s Community Development Department has “made homeowners out of a lot of people,” he said. That goes beyond helping them get houses to being supportive with future needs and questions that arise about their homes.
“I’m concerned about their well-being,” he said. “That’s why my phone just keeps ringing.”
He also worked with renters when the city administered the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program through 2015.
Whoever becomes the next community development director should “be a people-person” and also be aware of laws, Knox said.
The director should be able to get along with the general public and “be respectful of folks. People will get on your nerves,” but that’s no reason to slip in one’s own positive attitude.
A key to working well with people is to listen to their needs. Understanding others goes a long way toward good relations and positive feelings, he said.
Land use is governed by many laws and regulations, and a director needs to know them, he said.
Having a heart attack in 2012 opened his eyes to a lot, he said. One of those things was “what impact I was having on people.”
There was a big commotion outside his hospital room, he recalled. He could hear a nurse ask who was in that room and someone’s reply: “‘The Housing Man.’”
Bringing in grant money
Knox grew up in Reading, Pa., but said he fell in love with Virginia while spending summers on his grandmother’s farm in Petersburg.
“I always said, when I was a boy, ‘When I grow up, I’m going to move to Virginia,’” Knox said. His mother didn’t believe him until the first time “she came down here to see it,” he said with a chuckle.
He earned a master’s degree in urban and regional planning from Penn State University and worked for 10 years in urban areas in the field service offices of the federally chartered corporation Neighborhood Reinvestment Corp. in Washington D.C. before becoming the director of planning and development in the rural Dinwiddie County, according to Bulletin reports.
He eventually quit that job, he said, because he was discouraged by what he saw as some inappropriate business. He farmed for a while, then worked in construction in Mechanicsville, making $5 an hour — just to have something to do — when Dinwiddie’s former county administrator, Dewey Cashwell, called him.
Cashwell by then was the assistant city manager in Martinsville, and he urged Knox to consider the open director of community development position in Martinsville, Knox said.
Knox did. On the day in 1995 he was interviewed, that interview was cut short – by the American of Martinsville fire. City officials took him with them to the scene.
Finding grant money
His first assignment in Martinsville was to build the two or three remaining houses in the project on Stephens Street (between Askins Street and DuPont Road). That led him to suggest that the city start doing more such projects with Community Development Block Grants.
“Ever since he’s been on board, we’ve pretty much had a Community Development Block Grant project, almost continuously,” City Manager Leon Towarnicki said.
With a CDBG, “typically, you go into older neighborhoods, fix up housing, put in new water and sewer lines, [do] street improvements,” Towarnicki said. “Going back 25 years, that number of projects and the people who have been impacted by the work he’s done through the projects is significant. He’s left his mark.”
When Towarnicki started working for the city as city engineer in 1982, “none of that existed,” Towarnicki said. Then the city hired a city planner, later expanding the role to include community development. “Wayne, the first director of community development, brought a wider perspective to that whole operation.”
Knox also took advantage in his early days of a unique Indoor Plumbing Repair program for the city, he said. He had been familiar with that program for rural areas when he worked in Dinwiddie. It allowed only two exceptions to include cities: Williamsburg and Martinsville.
Next, Knox used the CDBG funding for improvements in the area of Massey Road – and that started the city on getting a neighborhood fixed up with CDBG grants about every three years.
“Sometimes you don’t get the money on the first try, but you try again,” Knox said. The third time of application was the charm for the Northside project.
“I know we’re going to miss Mr. Knox,” Peverall said. It was “probably millions of dollars he had coming into the city that he and his staff sought out and obtained.”
Five years ago, Knox was appointed assistant city manager in addition to his community development role. That made him Towarnicki’s “right-hand man,” he said, filling in for Towarnicki at times and joining Towarnicki at meetings and events.
“It’s been a lot of work, and I hope I’ve done a pretty good job,” he said.
What’s next – for Knox and for the city
The current area going through the CDBG application stage is the Pine Hall neighborhood. The application for it was submitted March 29, and it was rejected, but that didn’t surprise Knox: During that round of funding, the funding priority was for broadband, he said.
The application package is ready for City Manager Leon Towarnicki or Building Official Kris Bridges to send off at the next opportunity, Knox said. They’ll have to hold two public hearings before submitting the application in September.
Community Development Specialist Megan Spencer, who started in her position with the city a couple of weeks ago, also will be able to work with that application, Knox said.
At home, in addition to his list of chores, Knox said, he looks forward to indulging in his hobbies, which include scrapbooking, drawing and painting. Retirement also will give him more time with his three children and 10 grandchildren.
After enough time relaxing, he will “eventually pick up another type of career” – but probably not similar to what he has been doing, because that’s too time-consuming and he is, after all, retired.
He’s on a number of boards and commissions, including for mental health, outdoor recreation and child care, and he probably will get involved in one of those fields, he said.
In the meantime, he would like area residents to open their minds to the revival of Martinsville.
“A city can be great in different areas,” he said.
Previously, it was in industry. Since that left the area, leaving a void, many people and organizations have been working hard at reinventing a successful Martinsville.
“People have to be optimistic enough to believe it will be great again,” he said, adding that it’s on track to be.
“I’m glad I came here. It’s been a lot of fun. Time has flown by.”
Holly Kozelsky is a writer for the Martinsville Bulletin; contact her at 276-638-8801 ext. 243.