Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has asked the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development to look into whether any grant funding might be available to help build a proposed gymnasium to serve Martinsville High School and the community, Martinsville Schools Superintendent Zeb Talley said.

Talley first suggested the idea in the summer of 2018, and the school board included it in the six-year plan it approved in August of that year. Earlier this year, Talley appointed an advisory committee to examine the feasibility of and develop that concept.

As part of that effort the group reached out to the state for potential support, and Northam offered an idea.

“I’m real excited the governor would look on Martinsville and try to secure some help for us,” Talley said.

A representative of the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development will meet next month with members of the advisory committee to discuss the proposed gymnasium.

The teams at Martinsville High School play their games at the middle school gym, mostly because there is little room for fans at the high school’s antiquated facility. And the middle school gym is so jammed with events that it’s difficult for indoor sports teams at various levels to find time to practice and play.

To meet that need, the real issue here is funding.

Tamarah Holmes, associate director of community development, said a department representative would meet with Talley and other stakeholders to evaluate whether the proposed project might qualify for competitive planning or construction grants through the Community Development Block Grant program or through the Appalachian Regional Commission or both. The Appalachian Regional Commission focuses on economic development.

The possible planning grants she mentioned were a maximum of about $10,000 under one program and a maximum of about $50,000 under another program, depending on the cost of the project. The possible construction grants she mentioned were a maximum of about $700,000 under one program and a maximum of about $500,000 under another program, depending on the project cost.

Its website says DHCD, among other things, “partners with Virginia’s communities to develop their economic potential … and invests more than $100 million each year into housing and community development projects throughout the state — the majority of which are designed to help low- to moderate-income citizens.”

Martinsville certainly would fit into that income category.

According to the annual County Health Rankings released earlier this year, median household income for the city of Martinsville was $34,500, compared with $71,500 for Virginia. Martinsville’s rate was the seventh worst of Virginia’s more than 130 localities.

Martinsville’s rate for children in poverty is 34%, more than twice Virginia’s rate of 14%.

Martinsville’s rate of children in single-parent households (62%) also was more than twice Virginia’s rate of 30%.

Martinsville also had worse or significantly worse rates than Virginia for percentage of adults ages 25 to 44 with some post-secondary education, violent crime, unemployment, teen births, life expectancy, premature death, adult obesity and physical inactivity.

County Health Rankings is a project of  the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

A 2010 paper for the National Recreation and Park Association by Peter A. Witt of the department of recreation, park and tourism services, Texas A&M University, and Linda L. Caldwell of the department of recreation, park and tourism management and human development and family studies of Pennsylvania State University, said adult-supervised, out-of-school-time programs for children help reduce juvenile delinquency; help increase positive and reduce negative behaviors; expose youth to less violence; improve children’s educational performance, helping the future work force and economy; help decrease health care costs related to childhood obesity; and help youth develop initiative, self-confidence and optimism.

When asked his thoughts about the County Health Rankings data and the paper by Witt and Caldwell, Talley wrote: “These are powerful statistics and further indicate the positive effect a community center gym would have [in] our city. The community center would certainly give students a supervised place to gather and take part in activities.

“We have a great community and the ability to house tournaments, concerts, exercise programs, and other wellness benefits would certainly enhance lives here. In addition, some of these activities would provide an opportunity for participants to spend money at food and other businesses in our area.”

But where would the money come from to build a gymnasium  on the campus of Martinsville High School to serve both the school and community?

“Typically, state funding is really only available through programs like the VPSA program [Virginia Public School Authority has a system to help with financing]," James F. Lane, Virginia superintendent of public instruction, said. " Right now the responsibility for construction of schools is primarily a local issue.”

The city of Martinsville can’t afford to fund the gym.

“There’s simply no capacity at the moment to absorb the cost for a project of that magnitude,” City Manager Leon Towarnicki wrote in an email.

In fact, the city is continuing to have to dip into its reserves to balance its budget to offset a shortfall in revenues.

“If funds were available,” Towarnicki wrote about the gym proposal, “I think some discussion by the local elected officials would be appropriate to be sure the city’s overall needs and priorities are being properly addressed.

“Every year, West Piedmont PDC [Planning District Commission] updates the area Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy list,  which is a prioritized list of potential development projects within each of the areas represented by West Piedmont PDC and the last update was just completed several months ago.  The Martinsville section of that document is reviewed with (and approved by) City Council annually.

"At the moment, the community gymnasium is not listed in that document as a project.”

Talley said the advisory committee for the proposed gymnasium will be exploring possible sources of funding for the project. For example, he has said he hopes funds could be raised privately through citizens, groups, companies, clergy, parents, educators alumni and other “people who care for our young people.”

Already he has heard from alumni from Martinsville High School classes 1990 through 1995, who want to help with fundraising.

“Dr. Talley has a passion for wanting this gym. I’d love to see it, too,”  Clay Campbell, a member of the advisory committee, said.

Charlie Holland, Martinsville High School girls basketball coach, has suggested seeking funding from the nonprofit The Harvest Foundation.

Harvest Foundation had its own plans to build a field house/arena in uptown Martinsville in 2006, but that never happened. 

In 2008 Allyson Rothrock, then executive director of the foundation and now its president, said The Harvest Foundation was reassessing its plans and that having unveiled the field house may have been premature.

“What has happened is that so much has changed in the past 18 to 24 months," she said in 2008, citing the national economic downturn, the lessons learned during construction of the soccer complex (at Smith River) and more going on uptown. “We feel like we need to step back and not move forward on something that could be a challenge to sustain and support.” 

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