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August 5, 2009

Press Release: Martinsville Bulletin

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

A local official thinks private investments as well as public funds could be needed to upgrade structures on Starling Avenue in Martinsville, where the city plans to establish an arts, culture and tourism district.

City planners' proposal for the district includes economic incentives to help motivate property owners. But Martinsville cannot afford as many incentives, or to put as much money toward them, as larger cities with similar districts, according to Wayne Knox, the city's director of community development.

Certainly, "we're not going to buy folks' property to rehabilitate it," Knox told the Martinsville Planning Commission on Tuesday.

Martinsville City Council would have to approve some of the incentives and implement them during the fiscal year that starts next July. For that reason, city planners are not rushing to seek council's approval of the district. Knox said, though, that he hopes the district will be established by early 2010.

The planning commission on Tuesday had initial discussions on the district. Commission members voiced no objections to the proposal, but they asked Knox for more information, including:

"¢ How much money should the city put toward incentives?

"¢ What is city staff envisioning in terms of requirements for both interior and exterior renovations?

"¢ What is a clear definition of an arts- or culture-oriented business?

"¢ How would the commission as well as the city's Architectural Review Board and a proposed city Arts, Cultural and Tourism Commission work together to oversee the district?

Knox said he will try to provide that information during the commission's next meeting on Aug. 20.

Basically, the district is intended to lure businesses and other attractions of interest to arts and culture enthusiasts. The ultimate goal is to lure tourists who will spend money in the area, thereby boosting the local economy.

"Tourism is such a growing part of our economy," especially among people interested in the area's furniture- and textile-making heritage, Knox said.

Businesses already on Starling that are not connected with arts and culture would not have to move. However, they may not be eligible for incentives to help with renovations, officials said.

The Piedmont Arts Association and the Virginia Museum of Natural History already are on the avenue, and Knox said arts and culture enthusiasts have expressed interest in finding living quarters nearby. He said that he knows certain owners of structures on Starling are interested in turning space in their structures into dwellings.

Starling Avenue, once mostly residential, began evolving in the 1960s as a professional district, Knox recalled. Most houses on the avenue currently are used as offices or small businesses.

Commission member James Crigger Sr. said a building at the intersection of Starling and Memorial Boulevard has had upstairs apartments at least since the 1940s. He knows because he lived there many years ago, he said.

That building would be a logical point to start improving living spaces and adding others, Knox said.

Another commission member, Barbara Cousin, asked how laws regarding structures' accessibility by disabled people would affect renovations.

Little, Knox indicated. He said that when a structure is used for business as well as a home, downstairs generally is used for the business and upstairs is used for the home. Therefore, he thinks people other than those living in a structure usually would not need to go upstairs, so structures along Starling would need little - if any - modifications for disabled people.

However, the structures still would have to comply with regulations in the city's building code pertaining to access to the disabled, he said.

Due to the presence of Piedmont Arts and the museum on Starling, Knox said, city planners think having an arts, culture and tourism district on the avenue would be "a natural fit."

If the district is successful, it eventually could be expanded to include uptown, he said.

Joe Williams, Piedmont Arts' interim executive director, attended Tuesday's meeting. He said he thinks the district would spur economic growth, but he thinks something other than small shops may be needed to lure visitors.

One idea that came up in conversation between Cousin, Knox and Williams after the meeting is European-style sidewalk cafes - or, at least, outdoor dining areas like the one Arts Etc. has in front of its restaurant uptown.

But they acknowledged one potential problem with that idea: If the cafes served alcoholic beverages, how could customers who had too much to drink be kept from causing disturbances on the sidewalk or street?

Sports fans who go out to eat after attending events at an arena planned uptown are apt to want something more potent than iced tea, Cousin said.

Cafes may need a railing or shrubbery that separates customers from a nearby sidewalk, she said.

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