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May 27, 2014

Waynesboro wrestles with how to renew city's core

News Leader

Calvin Trice, ctrice@newsleader.com
May 27, 2014
WAYNESBORO — Just wanting someone to do something with your abandoned industrial sites is rarely enough. Not even money or incentives will make it happen.

Sometimes, as Waynesboro is finding, it's about knowledge. That's the main thrust of the city's use of $400,000 in federal grant money aimed at getting former industrial sites in the downtown area redeveloped.

Their mission: Find out what's wrong with the sites that needs to be fixed. Sometimes, nothing is wrong. And you can promote a clean location. Other times, the land will be acceptable for a park but not a daycare, or land can't have wells but gets city water anyway.

But the effort is just part of a set of projects using $2 million in grants and local funding to help downtown. It's a small early outpost in a move to revitalize Waynesboro — central to a larger, still-early vision of what the town could be: a South River-based economy with the right mix of amenities, outdoor activities, tourism-friendly restaurants and smart planning to anchor Waynesboro's core area for generations.

The journey to that vision is only starting. Numerous manufacturers closed or moved from the city in the last decade and before that. One of the biggest barriers to enticing developers to invest in old factory sites is the uncertainty over potential environmental contaminants that might require costly studies up front or pricey rehabilitation once discovered.

There are bright spots, including recent developer purchases. The Mill at South River buildings were purchased a year ago December after a set of studies prepared the property for sale. And the Virginia Metalcrafters site east of the river sold last May to a group that seems primed to restart craft metal work there.

Meade Anderson, who manages the brownfields program for the state Department of Environmental Quality, said Waynesboro seems poised for re-inventing itself — if it wants to.

"I think Waynesboro is in geographically a good location," he said. "Albermarle has gotten to be a very expensive county. … And Waynesboro is right there on the interstate. Yeah, it's got an industrial legacy. But (the town) really looks good; it looks much better than it did 10 years ago."

Anderson said the downtown core pieces coming together will be key, including the greenway — a natural element that can help the town cement its brand with outsiders.

"There are properties near the greenway that can be redeveloped, and whether it's a coffeeshop, whether it's an apartment that has access to the greenway to walk after work, these are all real benefits," he said. "That greenway has the potential to highlight the area, especially as it is extended … and, if I recall, there has been some talk of hooking up with the Crozet Tunnel. You've got the AT going through at the top of Afton. And … you've two major interstates. That's a good position to be in, if you want economic development."

So far, outside grants have been key.

The Environmental Protection Agency awarded the city the funding last year to have about 15 sites along Race Avenue and East Main Street studied for possible waste or petroleum contamination from their previous industrial uses.

About two-thirds of the EPA grant money will be used to find that out and either issue properties a clean bill of health, or learn what contaminants are there that would be need cleaning up.

Waynesboro contracted with firms that will study the properties this year and into next to remove the element of the unknown from potential investors and developers, city Planning Director Michael Barnes said.

The company Environmental Standards is leading a team of private consultants that have begun analyzing Waynesboro's brownfields and interviewing property owners to perform environmental assessments of the sites.

Demands on the city to manage stormwater runoff so that it doesn't pollute the South River is one of the challenges Waynesboro will need to overcome for redevelopment, said Phillip McKalips, a Charlottesville geoscientist consulting with the city for Environmental Standards.

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Scott Swicegood of Kentucky pushes away from shore as he takes his 4-year-old daughter, Gracie Swicegood, out for a kayak ride on the South River during XtremeFest of the Blue Ridge held at Ridgeview Park in Waynesboro on Saturday, May 15, 2010.(Photo: Mike Tripp/The News Leader Mike Tripp/The News Leader)

On the other hand, Waynesboro has the advantage of proximity to the Interstate 64 and 81 corridors and universities, as well as natural attractions like the South River, the Appalachian Trail and the Blue Ridge Parkway, McKalips wrote in an email.

"Waynesboro has some unique opportunities to capitalize on its outdoor amenities," he said.

Several study sites were targeted when the city applied for the grants:

The 6.5-acre Loth Stove property was for nearly 130 years the site of stove manufacturing, then industrial storage on an active floodplain.
The eight-story Casco Cold Storage Plant was built to warehouse apples, but might have left behind contaminants from its cooling system and the electrical transformers that provided power to the building.
One block of the Race Avenue corridor bounded by Arch Avenue, Short Street and Main Street has many under-used buildings and spaces that could be turned into housing.
Along East Main Street, the Boys & Girls Club operates on the site once used for a car dealership and gas station that has never had an environmental assessment.
Also along East Main are the sites of four former gas stations and the 7.5-acre Virginia Metalcrafters property that could be redeveloped with an environmental study.
Working with Environmental Standards are Stromberg/Garrigan & Associates, who specialize in site reuse, land-use planning, environment-friendly infrastructure and public outreach. Putting back to use infrastructure idled after the factories and gas stations left is one of the goals for the EPA brownfields grant program that targeted Waynesboro.

At the end, it may come down to how livable the Waynesboro core can be made. Things like the investment Kroger made in their downtown location will help, Barnes said.

And Lumos and Coldwater are companies that will play a vital role, he said.

"I think the final thing we really have to work on is how do we get people on the street?" Barnes said. "Downtowns are social places. That's what they are now. They are not the retail meccas that they were 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago. That's out on the west end at Walmart now."

The question for Waynesboro's core area will be — can it become a place where people can come and spend the weekend with their families?

"How do we get enough critical mass of people in a downtown?" Barnes said. "I think we work on that by getting residential units in the downtown so that people are living and walking here. We also work on tourism to get the tourists to come down… and in between, our own citizens, who had forgotten about downtown or haven't seen it as a vibrant place — they too come down."