The area’s high unemployment has cleared up, and now the pressing problem is lack of places where people who work here want to live.

That’s the premise that created a new role with the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corporation: housing & revitalization coordinator, filled by Jeff Sadler of Richmond.

Sadler recently was the associate director of the Community Revitalization Office at the Richmond Department of Housing and Community Development. He is the principal and lead consultant for Complete Community Economies LLC, which handles comprehensive revitalization plans for areas in transition. That includes housing options, business development efforts and tax-based renewal and strengthening.

He is a contract employee, he said, and will work three days a week in Martinsville, where he has an apartment in the uptown area, and be in Richmond otherwise.

During the past two decades, Sadler said, his work basically has been about “attracting investment … projects that change the way people use their communities.”

Sadler is no stranger to the area. For five years, he worked with the city and other entities to get the Henry Hotel converted into apartments. In 2002 he was the Main Street manager in Rocky Mount, where his projects included getting the library moved into the downtown area.

“The main thing I pride myself on is in being a good connector,” he said, to bring together “people, projects and resources.”

That means knowing how to bring into the area grants to help develop properties for improved uses, he said.

It’s not only a matter of getting buildings built, but creating projects that are “going to spur additional investment” in the area, he said. The best projects are those which “give people confidence to invest in the buildings and areas nearby.”

The types of projects would include residential, commercial and amenities – extra things, such as parks and concert halls which would enhance the quality of life.

Different types of housing

Yes, there is plenty of available housing, he said — but not necessarily of the type many people are seeking. Many people who have gotten jobs in the area live out of town, such as in Greensboro, N.C., because they could find there modern houses or apartments that just aren’t available in the MHC area.

That makes his primary focus “up-to-date housing options that are affordable,” Sadler said. Much of that would be the construction of new housing, but it also would include improving and modernizing some of the properties that already exist.

“It’s clear the area needs new construction or the adaptive re-use of some spaces,” he said.

Although the improved employment in the area is good, it’s just one side of the coin of a healthy community: The other side is that the workers live in the area. That would increase the tax base and cancel out the blight of so many empty buildings, factories and houses, according to the concepts behind Sadler’s position.

He said he anticipates that his role would enhance what others in the area already do. For example, Martinsville has a position for community development director. It had been held by Wayne Knox, who recently retired and has not been filled.

“My role is to help that role be more effective,” Sadler said. “Having worked with where those grants come from at the state level,” he said he would be able to help identify potential projects which would qualify for grants and maximize how grant applications are written.

Ideas abound

Sadler already has some projects in mind: The former John Redd school in Collinsville would make “a good housing option for the right development and residents.” A little improvement in the Fayette Street area would go a long way, both for the people who live there and the city as a whole. The Chief Tassel Building (between Free Play Café and Studio 107 uptown) would make great apartments.

Martinsville and Henry County “have endless opportunities and potential. I feel confident about the future of the area,” he said.

During Tuesday’s city council meeting, City Manager Leon Towarnicki called Sadler “a pretty big fish to land for this job.”

He said Sadler was “very helpful in applying for DHCD funding for The Henry.”

Towarnicki said the EDC has pointed out that the area has done “a great job recruiting business,” but a major “question from industry leaders as businesses come to the area is, where” can the employees live?”.

That was the topic of a housing summit on July 31, attended by about 125 people who work in housing-related fields, Towarnicki said.

There hasn’t been any substantial new development in the city “in a long time,” he said.

In the housing summit, six sites in the city with potential for housing were listed: the Chief Tassel building; the American site on Elsworth that burned; the Aaron street factory which burned 4 years ago; 14 acres on West Church Street, a former Draper property; the former American warehouse at Lester Depot; and 130 acres near the new Spruce Street trailhead. In the county, the former John Redd school was identified as having potential, he said.

Multiple needs

In a press release from the EDC announcing Sadler’s appointment, Henry County Administrator Tim Hall said, “This community has done and continues to do a good job of providing job opportunities for our residents. The logical next step is enhanced residential space because the workers need a place to live. Buying or renting a home really is the fabric of a great community, and we are excited that someone with Jeff Sadler’s experience and talent will move us forward.”

Mark Heath, president and CEO of the EDC, said in the release that the area’s “success in increasing the tax base and recruiting new jobs has led to the realization that we need updated apartment and housing stock across multiple income levels. Jeff’s expertise will greatly enhance the EDC’s Talent Development efforts.”

Funding for the position is supported by The Harvest Foundation, which since December has worked to convene stakeholders and other officials in attention about housing.

“This is the next logical step in supporting the infrastructure for successful business growth and development, as well as educating all of our residents on the resources available for them to have updated housing,” Harvest President Allyson Rothrock said.

Sadler’s office is in the EDC complex in The Baldwin Building, 191 Fayette St.

Holly Kozelsky is a writer for the Martinsville Bulletin; contact her at 276-638-8801 ext. 243.

Holly Kozelsky is a writer for the Martinsville Bulletin; contact her at 276-638-8801 ext. 243.

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