Reporter's Notebook

Danville, Virginia
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The Reinvention of a Downtown: Danville’s Story, Part 2

Aerial view of the River District of downtown Danville, Virginia. The structure in the center is a farmer's market. On the left, is the city's Science Center and Digital Dome. In the background, warehouses being restored as lofts and business sites. Courtesy of River City TV

Previously in this series: why the ups and downs of economic history have left the southern Virginia town of Danville with a genuine problem (what to do after its big mills closed), but also a significant advantage (the physical infrastructure that those old tobacco and textile sites left behind, much of it quite beautiful.)

Years ago, on the first reporting visit that my wife, Deb, and I made to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, I mentioned that the city seemed strangely “over-retailed” for a place of its size. That is, it had a super-abundance of malls, professional offices, restaurants, and other facilities. Why? As we learned, these reflected Sioux Falls’s emergence as the service-and-retail center not just for its own population but for the broad surrounding area.

In a similar way, Danville can now seem strangely “over-warehoused,” with more century-old large, stately brick structures than you would expect for a town of some 40,000 people. The buildings sprang up in Danville because it was so prosperous a trading and manufacturing center from the late 1800s onward. And they survived largely because the city became so economically troubled that no one could afford to tear them down.

Now many of them are being revived, reoccupied, and put to new use, as previewed here. The center of the activity is the “River District,” on the southern bank of the Dan River near the Main Street bridge. Decades ago, this was a center of tobacco trading and the textile business. One of the enormous factory buildings for Dan River Mills, known as the “White Mill” and abandoned for years, sits not far away.

“If you were here ten years ago, it would have been obvious that we were a mill town without a mill,” Rick Barker, a Danville native and entrepreneur who is now a downtown developer of historic properties, told me this month. “Now we’re becoming something else.”

What is that something? The purpose of this dispatch is to give a few  illustrations of a city in the middle of becoming, and some brief background on work that’s been done and work that remains.

The Continental, site of a one-time tobacco trading, handling, and drying center. The structure also once housed a tobacco “prizery,” where tobacco leaves were pressed into tight layers for shipment. It is now being developed as downtown lofts. (Courtesy City of Danville.)
Jobbers Canyon Historic District was a warehouse area located in downtown Omaha, Nebraska. In 1989, all 24 buildings in Jobbers Canyon were demolished, representing the largest National Register historic district lost to date.
Jobbers Canyon Historic District was a warehouse area located in downtown Omaha, Nebraska. In 1989, all 24 buildings in Jobbers Canyon were demolished, representing the largest National Register historic district lost to date. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

Two previous reports, first here and then here, described the bittersweet heritage of old tobacco and textile buildings in the former mill town of Danville, Virginia.

The bitter was obviously the loss of what had been the city’s economic mainstays. The potentially sweet was that Danville never got around to demolishing the old structures—and now is beginning to turn them to new use.

A reader who used to live in Omaha rues the different decision that city made:

I am a historian generally by inclination, and an architectural historian by profession, and so I heartily agree with any and nearly all efforts to adapt old, historic buildings to new purposes …. This make sense both in the place-making and the economic sense.

I thought I’d share with you, although you probably already know [JF note: I didn’t], the unfortunate case of Omaha—the opposite, in some ways, as the experience of Danville.

Omaha had a large group of buildings downtown in what they call “Jobbers Canyon.”  The area was full of warehouses for the many wholesale and provision companies that were headquartered in Omaha, which (along with Council Bluffs) was a rail hub for Union Pacific Railroad.

Boxes of food awaiting distribution from 'God's Storehouse' in Danville, Virginia
Boxes of food awaiting distribution from 'God's Storehouse' in Danville, Virginia Courtesy of Deborah Fallows

We began the first morning of our recent visit to Danville, Virginia, at an early-bird breakfast with the Rotary Club, where my husband, Jim, and I heard several personal hopes, celebrations, and notes of gratitude from its members, as they pitched bills into the Happy Dollars bucket. One Happy Dollar for good wishes to a son about to deploy with the military; another for a granddaughter, a rainbow baby (Google that), who had made it to her first birthday; two for the boys whom the mom had hauled out of bed to come to the breakfast on their first day of summer vacation.  

After breakfast, we gratefully followed one of the Rotarians to Gatewood Auto and Truck Repair to see Gary, whom we heard was very good and always fair, hoping he could fix the passenger window of our 19-year-old Audi, which was suddenly stuck open. Gary fixed the window, a repair that soon seemed minor compared with the day’s second auto surprise, when the bottom shell fell off the underside of the car, right onto the street. (I learned that the official term for this part was the “belly pan.”) Thank God for the networks of small towns, I thought, and for Gary Gatewood, and the friendly folks at Mr. Tire, who repaired that belly-pan issue.

I continued a quarter-mile down the road to see Karen Harris, the executive director of God’s Storehouse, a food pantry serving low-income people along this southernmost border where Virginia meets North Carolina. On top of their other problems, rural areas that have lost industries and suffered long-term economic decline, like this part of Piedmont Virginia and North Carolina, often have high rates of obesity, diabetes, and other nutrition-related disorders. God’s Storehouse illustrates one response. During our travels around the country, we have seen groups in many regions coming together to use strength in numbers to imagine ideas and create effective action around health, economic development, education, the arts, and many other areas.

God’s Storehouse is part of the expansive Health Collaborative of the Dan River Region. It includes some 50 member organizations and 90 individuals, who approach the health and well-being of its residents to include not only healthy eating, but also access to health care, an active lifestyle, and inviting places to live, work, and play.

God’s Storehouse opened in 1987, a collaborative effort of many faith communities around Danville and surrounding Pittsylvania County. Pooling resources, they figured, would be a win for all.

The headquarters of the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research, in Danville, Virginia
The headquarters of the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research, in Danville, Virginia Courtesy of the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research

Here is another look at the far-southern-Virginia town of Danville: once a thriving tobacco-and-textile center, now trying to figure out what to do after all the mills have shut down.

In keeping with the previously announced intention to keep drawing connections, parallel themes, and lessons from the communities we visit, here are three aspects of Danville’s story worth noticing elsewhere, as boiled down as I can make them. A summary:

  • First, Danville’s civic renewal shows the importance of a relatively new form of philanthropy.
  • Second, it shows the importance of creative use of a onetime historical event—in this case, the “tobacco settlement,” which directed billions of dollars from the tobacco industry to local institutions. (This naturally leads to questions about whether a comparable “opioid settlement” might have similar transformative effects.)
  • Third, it shows the importance of public investment in infrastructure, specifically in broadband capacity.
Old mill buildings in downtown Danville being reoccupied (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

Previously, I did several reports on Danville’s attempt to put its extensive (and beautiful) inventory of old mill buildings to modern use: “The Reinvention of Danville’s Downtown, Part 1,” “Danville’s Story, Part 2,” and “How Danville Avoided Omaha’s Mistake.” Deb Fallows has written about the involvement of Danville’s faith community (and others) in dealing with rural health issues (“A Regional Approach to Rural Health Challenges”), and about the exceptional new Y that has opened alongside the Dan River downtown ( “A Community Within a Community”).

On to the details.


1) The role of foundations—and foundations of a particular sort: Institutions called “community foundations” are well known, active, long-established, and important across the country. Each year, they give a total of more than $5 billion to civic and charitable efforts in their areas.

The evolution of Danville and its surroundings has been very heavily influenced over the past 15 years by a similar-sounding but structurally different sort of charitable organization, the “health conversion foundation.”

In Danville, the relevant organization is called the Danville Regional Foundation, or DRF. The DRF’s effects in this part of Virginia and North Carolina are too broad and deep to cover in any detail here. For more of the specifics, I direct you to the DRF’s informative site, or articles like this in The State of the South or this in Perspectives on History. Almost everything under way in the vicinity—from the revival of Danville’s downtown to the launching of regional initiatives connecting smaller towns that have lost tobacco, textile, or furniture industries—bears the mark of the DRF. Its area of responsibility includes the city of Danville itself, neighboring Pittsylvania County in Virginia, and the larger Dan River area extending into Caswell County in rural North Carolina.

Why is this worth mentioning? Because of the foundation’s origin story. It’s one of a group of health conversion foundations across the country that have played a surprisingly large civic role over the past generation. Or at least surprising to me, since I hadn’t know about this specific form of modern philanthropy until our first trip to Danville last fall.

You can read extensive details about health conversion foundations from Health Affairs, but in brief: These are charities set up when a nonprofit hospital or similar facility is sold to a private company. Hundreds of them operate around the country, with total assets in the tens of billions. Some examples are the Rapides Foundation, of Louisiana, founded with $140 million in hospital-sale proceeds in 1994; the Cameron Foundation, of Petersburg, Virginia, founded in 2003 with hospital-sale proceeds valued at about $90 million in 2008; and the Harvest Foundation, of Martinsville, Virginia, which was also founded with the proceeds from the sale of a hospital, in 2002, with assets valued at about $200 million in 2008. Many more examples are listed in the Rural Health Initiative newsletter, here.

In Danville’s case, the foundation was formed after the sale of the local Danville Regional Hospital Center to a private company, LifePoint Hospitals, in 2005 for about $200 million. The DRF has given out some $116 million in grants since then; and through the magic of investments and the market, its endowment is now larger than when it began.


The restored tobacco building on Bridge Street in downtown Danville that the Danville Regional Foundation shares with Averett University (Courtesy of the Danville Regional Foundation)

Could the sale of a nonprofit health center to a for-profit firm conceivably be a net benefit for a community? As opposed to one more step toward an over-marketized, winner-take-all society?

I started out skeptical, and I still assume that the outcomes must vary case by case, depending on how the new foundation’s money is put to use, and how the new for-profit system runs. But an initial look at think-tank and academic papers suggests that many of the foundations have tried to address public-health and community-improvement goals in their areas.

For instance, here are some reports and articles I’ve seen: “With the ACA Under Fire, Can Health Conversion Foundations Patch the Safety Net for Low-Income Americans?,” in Health Affairs in 2017; “How Are Health Conversion Foundations Using Their Resources to Create Change?,” also in Health Affairs, in 2018; “Health Conversion Foundations: How to Make Them Relevant,” in Nonprofit Quarterly in 2016; and “A New Generation of Health Foundations,” in Healthcare Finance in 2014. On balance, they offer a positive assessment.

“I won’t say that every one of these foundations has fulfilled its potential,” Karl Stauber, who is stepping down this summer after a dozen years as the head of the Danville Regional Foundation, told me. “But my estimation is that two in 10 have had an oversized impact on the revitalization of the areas that they serve.”

Maybe everyone else reporting on rural and smaller-town development already knew about health conversion foundations. I hadn’t understood the importance of this recent part of the philanthropic landscape until we were introduced to it in Danville. (Now, of course, I see signs of it everywhere.)