Monday, March 06, 2006

Through the 1980's, cities like Halifax, Danville, South Boston and Martinsville in Southside Virginia were models of economic diversity. The strength and prosperity of each rested, to varying degrees, on the "three-legged stool" of tobacco, textiles and furniture and, it was believed, the diversity immunized each community against declines in any one of the three.

No one imagined all three could collapse at once. But they did. Textiles and furniture manufacturers moved offshore while tobacco declined precipitously as the United States increasingly became a smoke-free society. As the sustained boom went bust, unemployment rates reached record levels, downtowns deteriorated and hundreds of families moved to more favorable economic climes.

[Photo 1: Surveying for revitalization of Halifax]
Surveying for revitalization of Halifax. Photo courtesy of The Gazette-Virginian.

That's the bad news. The good news, though, is that Southside's late 20th century woes are being overcome by 21st century technology. Consider Halifax, a county seat of some 1,400 residents that, like so many other communities in Southside Virginia had fallen on hard times.

"National surveys indicate," Town Manager Carl Espy told The Gazette-Virginian in 2003, "that the 'small town' is the strong preference as the ideal place to live and this model is how we can rebuild for the future."

Step one in building that model was a $700,000 CDBG grant awarded by the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development for new sidewalks and facades to eliminate physical, economic and visual blight in the four square blocks of downtown Halifax while preserving its historic structures.

[Photo 2: Revitalization construction in Halifax]
Revitalization construction in Halifax. Photo courtesy of The Gazette-Virginian.

But Halifax didn't stop there. The next step was to make sure that Halifax is able to take full advantage of the economic opportunities being created by a new fiber-optic "backbone" being built along the Highway 58 corridor 10 miles to the south of town. In December, then Governor Mark Warner and DHCD announced the award of a $97,515 CDBG-funded Community Improvement Grant to fund some 3,400 linear feet of "last mile" connections in downtown and at the nearby Riverside Technology Park. The increased business activity that will result is expected to create at least 10 new jobs.

"The first CDBG grant," Espy explains, "helped us preserve and protect the historical nature of Halifax's downtown. This second grant will help us insure that our downtown is ready, willing and cyber-capable to compete and continue making history in the 21st century."

Thanks to HUD and its Virginia partners, he adds, "we hope downtown Halifax will be up and 'cyberized' by late 2006."

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