The Dan River Fabrics mill is closed and the warehouses in the old downtown are empty. But the buildings are sturdy and ready for a new purpose.
Photo: Misscharo

“Revitalization” is the word most often associated with downtown Danville, Virginia, in the pages of the local newspaper . From afar, that sounds hopeful, and talk of outside investors picking up structurally impressive buildings in the warehouse district as well as a few small businesses around town doesn’t sound bad either.

Driving through the four blocks of downtown Main Street, ancillary streets on either side, and the warehouse district street, the downtown can look like an undiscovered investment opportunity. Wide well laid out streets, good sidewalks and everything tidy and orderly. There are gems of buildings interspersed with the mundane but solid, and only one clear Katrina-like ’60s style hotel eyesore that a positive eye would view as something soon to be dealt with. Revitalization is just around the corner?

Walking through the downtown and taking it in, step by step, gives a more tenuous impression, especially perhaps to the eyes of someone who came of age there in the ’50s, ‘6’s and early ‘7’s when downtown was the center of activity, commercial and to some extent social. On a recent Saturday afternoon, 1:30 pm, I walked the length of Main Street to downtown. Once there, I strolled the four main blocks without seeing another person, not one, on my side of the street, coming toward me or behind me. Some cars went by, a few pedestrians were walking down side streets, and at the bottom of the hill on the other side there was some activity. Otherwise it was pleasantly desolate in an odd sort of way.

The main reason for the downtown’s existence today seems to be courthouse and bank support. There are at least three Danville-sized bank office buildings, the courthouse and jail, and many law offices scattered around. So a weekend would not necessarily be busy, and it was not. In the overall downtown area, a conservative estimate by this walker is that at least 50 percent of the commercial space is vacant.

danville wig shop

Downtown Danville has barber shops, government buildings and a large wig and clothing store.
Photo: Faisal Moshin

Of the businesses that existed in the downtown’s heyday, only three were found — an upscale women’s clothing and shoe store that seems in fine shape, a mid-range men’s clothing store that also looks active, and the run-down army and navy store. Apart from that there are at least six barber shops, three hair salons, the largest wig shop that I have ever seen and a good sized competitor across the street. Courts, lawyers, banks and hair — downtown Danville today.

There are two small and current looking coffee shops that weren’t open on that Saturday, and one exceptional new sandwich and bagel shop opened by some metro New Yorkers in the last year. That was the activity at the bottom of the hill on the other, and sunny, side of the street.

The much discussed historic warehouse district does have one new over-age-55 apartment building, a newly built loft style condo development and another one just under construction in the handsome old structures that are being renovated. There is, however, no one on the street and no retail whatsoever in the immediate area of the new housing.

danville warehouses

Danville’s warehouses are wonderful old buildings, but empty.
Photo: misscharo

That’s the picture. The infrastructure for a downtown is in place, the buildings are available, it’s clean looking, but people are not there. Everyone seems to be in their cars just across the river at the mall, not too busy most of the time but with three department stores and fifteen or so chain specialty stores, and at Walmart, K-Mart, Value City, Lowes and multiple other parking lotted businesses and chain fast food and dining, even a Starbucks.

A walking impression of this area is impossible. Coming soon to this riverside area are a Target, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Home Depot and lots of others in two new shopping complexes. For an economically challenged area, the grandiosity of this new investment seems amazing. The economic rationale must be that Danville, the largest town in the immediate area of several rural counties, will become the regional shopping center. Its central location, city services, and a population willing to take minimum wage jobs must be the rationale. It is estimated that the new stores will add around 900 new jobs of this type in the next year.

This leaves our subject, downtown Danville, even more challenged. “Revitalization” as a mainstream shopping area seems unlikely. A restaurant, boutique, crafts and antiques center might seem just the ticket in an area with more wealth, but feels like a pipe dream here at the moment. Can enough retirees, educated urban refugees, millennium gen non-conformists, dedicated and creative entrepreneurs like the sandwich and bagel shop folks, and even constructive transients be attracted to the downtown area and gel into something interesting? Is the current walking picture of downtown Danville signaling the perfect time to invest and create, or an inevitable demise despite good efforts and intentions?

The question is perhaps broader. Can Danville as a whole rebuild its economic life and energize its educational and social life after seeing its textile and tobacco town identity definitively become part of the historic past? Is there a unique next chapter? If not, does this mean that the city over time becomes just another distribution center of the national consumer culture, helping to deliver what the focus groups say is good to every corner of our country.

Will people finally speak “proper” English and then have nothing to say?

Don’t count on that.

John Borden grew up and graduated from high school in Danville, where his father still lives. Borden lives in New York. He writes the blog eyesnotsold.

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