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.)
A sign that once read "Home of Dan River Mills," now in downtown Danville, Virginia
A sign that once read "Home of Dan River Mills," now in downtown Danville, Virginia Courtesy of the Danville Regional Foundation

Factory towns face problems when the factories shut down. Everyone has heard versions of that story—involving steel and auto plants in the Midwest, sawmills in the Northwest, coal mines in Appalachia or copper mines in the Southwest, other facilities in other towns.

On a recent visit to Southside Virginia—the part of the state bordering North Carolina, and far from the tech-and-government-driven boom of the D.C. suburbs in northern Virginia and the military-based economy of Norfolk and the Tidewater—we were reminded of the problems cities had even when those factories were up and running. We also learned about the way they are trying to apply the mixed blessings of a lost manufacturing heritage as they figure out their next act.

Our visit was centered in the city of Danville, which Deb Fallows wrote about here. Danville is the major city within Pittsylvania County, which is geographically one of the largest in the state. The city’s population is about 40,000, split roughly 50-50 black and white. In its day, it was one of the richest places in the Piedmont area, and a major center of first the tobacco and then the textile industries. Danville was also, for a one-week period in April 1865, the final capital city of the Confederacy—with implications down to the present, as we’ll explore in upcoming dispatches.

Now textiles have disappeared almost entirely, and tobacco hangs on in much-reduced form. (These days, the main tobacco-business force is JTI, or Japan Tobacco International, which has bought brands like Natural American Spirit and Benson & Hedges, and has expanded its warehouse and processing facilities in Danville.) While Virginia’s population has boomed—roughly 4 million in the 1960 census, 6 million in 1990, 8 million in 2010, and rising—Danville’s is a little smaller now than it was in the 1960s. This part of southwestern Virginia and western North Carolina has endured the simultaneous collapse of the three industries that were the mainstays of its many small towns: tobacco, textiles, and furniture making. Danville’s comparative good fortune is that it didn’t have as many furniture factories to lose as some neighboring places did.


And yet: Danville is now benefiting from another aspect of its battered industrial heritage, which it is beginning to turn into an important city asset. How? Please read on.

Old warehouses, awaiting renovation, in downtown Danville, Virginia (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

The Danville YMCA
Courtesy of Deborah Fallows

During our years of reporting for Our Towns, I’ve visited YMCAs all across the country. My quest began as a way to keep fit while traveling. I bought day passes to swim in Burlington, Vermont; Columbus, Mississippi; Redlands, California; Allentown, Pennsylvania; Duluth, Minnesota; and Wichita, Kansas.

If I couldn’t find a Y, I would swim at a local public pool, like in Holland, Michigan; Greenville, South Carolina; Dodge City, Kansas; Winters, California; and Bend, Oregon. As a last resort, I turned to nature, jumping into the Snake River in Clarkston, Washington; Lake Champlain in Vermont; Lake Erie in Erie, Pennsylvania; Lake Michigan in Holland, Michigan; the freezing Atlantic in Portland, Maine; and the also-freezing Pacific along the West Coast.

Recently I added another venue to my list: the YMCA of Danville, in the so-called Southside of Virginia, bordering North Carolina. Danville, once a thriving tobacco and textile town, has placed a big bet on its Y as more than a fun and healthy place to work out, or swim, or play basketball. It is an anchor institution for restoring the spirit and pride of Danville.

The YMCA is a natural for this role, with its 135-year history in Danville and now a brand-spanking-new, $15 million, 50,000-square-foot facility on the Dan River. Spurred on by an initial gift from the private Danville Regional Foundation, which was followed by millions more from other foundations, institutions, and individuals in town, the new Y opened in 2014. The building is a beautiful, award-winning design of brick, glass, and exposed beams, with natural light and social space. It became the first development facing the river in more than 100 years, and in homage to that history, the Y also shows off reclaimed wood from the old textile mill that once stood on its spot.