Reprinted with permission from the Virginian Review. This story appeared in the Saturday, Oct. 29, edition of the newspaper.
BY LARRY O’ROURKE
If hindsight is 20/20, foresight must be Vision 2025.
A community summit to highlight the early successes of the Vision 2025 initiative was held Wednesday morning at Emmanuel Episcopal Church where group leaders provided updates on key components of the program that encourages continued growth in the Alleghany Highlands.
Vision 2025 began with a community meeting facilitated by John Rhodes of Moran, Stahl and Boyer in February 2013 that was designed to help stakeholders better understand principles of economic development, historical and future trends in the Alleghany Highlands.
“Here we are today, just two short years later, gathering for the goals and celebrating the successes, acknowledging the challenges and ultimately highlighting ways that we and others around us can get more involved,” said Martha Atherholt, a Clifton Forge business owner and Vision 2025 volunteer who kicked off Wednesday morning’s gathering.
Atherholt highlighted the five working groups that compose Vision 2025 — real estate, utilities and marketing; the Alleghany Highlands Web Store and small business support; Corridor Curb Appeal; signage and wayfinding; and the Alleghany Highlands Industrial Heritage and Technology Discovery Center.
Each of these initiatives was supported by an action team and a coordinator for that team as well as vision, strategy and schedules to implement recommendations.
“By March of 2014, these five initiatives had been adopted and a community-based effort began with the goal of moving toward revitalization of our area by 2025,” Atherholt said.
She recognized the Alleghany Highlands Chamber of Commerce and Tourism, Dabney S. Lancaster Community College, the Alleghany Highlands Economic Development Corp. and The Alleghany Foundation for supporting the Vision 2025 initiative.
Atherholt also highlighted recent successes in the Alleghany Highlands — the reopening of the Historic Masonic Theatre in Clifton Forge, renovations at area hospitals and a successful drone event hosted this spring in the area.
She recognized community leaders, volunteers and newcomers to the Alleghany Highlands for their interest in seeing the area grow and prosper.
“It is leaders like this that helped to facilitate the growth that we’ve had in our area,” Atherholt added. “Vision 2025 helps to encourage the continued growth of this community.”
Marla Akridge highlighted the success behind the Alleghany Highlands Web Store and small business support.
She saluted her committee members and recognized the talents of Alleghany Highlands artisans.
“I am so amazed at the quality of art we have here in the Highlands,” she said. “There is some very affordable art.”
Akridge explained the process of buying items from the web store. She said efforts are underway to work on search engine optimization, and she cited a need for qualified volunteers. She said 13 local artisans are currently online, and she urged others to become vendors. She said her group has established a goal of adding at least two new vendors each month.
“Share the website with your family and friends. Share it with your friends from afar,” Akridge said. “Now we need people to buy, and Christmas is here.”
Jon Lanford, representing the sites and infrastructure committee of the Real Estate, Utility Development and Marketing extension of Vision 2025, said his group had evaluated real estate and buildings in the area for development readiness.
Lanford said that of the seven sites which were examined, most ranked at a level of four with one being ready and four being raw land not ready for marketing to a prospect. The highest-ranking site that was examined was the former AET property, now the Rail over River facility.
“We have no sites that are prospect-ready,” Lanford said. “We’re just not competitive.”
Lanford said that developing these sites would require investment. Costs would range on the low end of about $35,000 to a high of approximately $6.6 million.
“What that drove for us as a group was the realization that we have these sites, but people talk about the lack of activity in the community. We’re just not competitive because we have the product, but the product is not to the point where it is really marketable,” he said.
Lanford revealed that the work of his group has led to a joint revenue sharing agreement between Alleghany County and the city of Covington.
“We’re going to have to do this together,” he said. “I think that is a very positive step to reverse some of the trends that we’ve had, probably beginning in the ’80s.”
In concluding his comments, Lanford recognized the efforts of his volunteers. He said the Alleghany Highlands has great economic development potential with interstate access, quality water sources, good utilities and an excellent fiber backbone.
“We have product here,” he said. “We’re going to have to make some investment.”
Representing the Corridor Curb Appeal aspect of Vision 2025, Darlene Burcham said she and her team “hit the ground running.”
Burcham said original brainstorming in 2013 presented some ambitious goals for her and the Corridor Curb Appeal committee members. The work started with a house on A Street in Clifton Forge, and volunteer efforts have included assistance from St. Joseph’s University students during their Spring Break.
“I’ve always thought of Covington and Clifton Forge as the bookends — the two bookends — to the Alleghany Highlands, so one of the major purposes of our committee is to make sure that the first impression people have of our area — whether they come from the east or from the west — is a very positive one,” she said.
Burcham said each Corridor Curb Appeal initiative has attracted from 10 to 28 volunteers, and they range in age from eight to 80. Since they started their work, eight homes have been painted or repaired, six corridor cleanups have been completed and three trim-fests have been held.
Street sweeping has occurred in Covington, while the tunnel has been cleaned and painted at the CSX entrance in Clifton Forge.
To stay abreast of Corridor Curb Appeal updates, those interested can visit their Facebook page.
Burcham said Boys Home of Virginia residents have recently become involved in Corridor Curb Appeal, and more volunteers are always appreciated. To volunteer, call Clifton Forge Main Street of Covington City Hall.
“We’d like people to have a very positive impression about our two communities and to come back often, maybe decide to start a business here or buy one of our homes either as their permanent location or as a second home,” Burcham said.
Teresa Hammond outlined the signage and wayfinding portion of the Vision 2025 initiative that was originally recommended as part of the Downtown Visioning Study from May 2011.
Phase I addressed interstate attraction signage, while Phase II included design of gateway signs and implementation.
Phase III focuses on wayfinding signs.
“Those will be installed as funding becomes available for that phase,” Hammond explained. “This will help our visitors navigate to these various attractions in the downtowns.”
Sandra Denius offered an update from the Community Landscaping and Destination Gardens group.
Denius explained the importance of greenery and gardens to the aesthetics of the Alleghany Highlands.
“They are very welcoming,” she said. “You see life.”
Denius identified and prioritized top projects that will be addressed over the next few years. They include the Alleghany Highlands Garden Contest, gardens in various locations throughout the Highlands, tours ranging from wildflowers to ancient trees and seed libraries.
Anyone wishing to get involved in the gardening aspect of Vision 2025 is invited to attend the monthly working garden groups that meet on the third Wednesday of each month (except December) beginning at noon in the offices of the Alleghany Highlands Chamber of Commerce and Tourism.
“The Community Landscaping and Destination Garden Group matters because it improves the quality of life for all the residents of the Alleghany Highlands, and it helps attract visitors by making it an even more beautiful area,” Denius said.
Last on Wednesday’s agenda was Paul Linkenhoker, who provided an update on the Alleghany Highlands Industrial Heritage and Technology Discovery Center.
The organization looked at four sites before acquiring property on Maple Avenue through a gift/purchase from the Rooklin Estate. The buildings now have a new roof and the interior has been cleared of all debris.
The Alleghany Foundation provided $1.4 million toward the project, and the Discovery Center is currently seeking historic tax credits, Linkenhoker explained.
“The identity of the Alleghany Highlands is industry,” Linkenhoker said. “Our industrial heritage goes back to the days of lumber mills, tanning facilities for hides, ironworks, machine works and brick.”
Frazier and Associates have been retained to serve as architects for the project and preliminary plans are being developed.
The advisory committee will continue to move forward with the rehabilitation of the building and the architectural design of the interior. An exhibit design committee will begin to prepare information on space requirements and possible layouts for the exhibits within the identified areas of the building.
Fundraising endeavors will begin soon.
To get involved, Linkenhoker said, individuals are needed to provide leadership, develop ideas and complete tasks with the development of the Discovery Center.
“We need your support both financially and physically,” Linkenhoker said. “We need your help.”
The Vision 2025 summit concluded with tours of the Discovery Center.
Mary Fant Donnan, executive director of The Alleghany Foundation, thanked those in attendance, the volunteers and Emmanuel Episcopal Church for the use of its Parish Hall.
“We have a very bright future,” Donnan said. “All of you here today are volunteers for doing something to help make our community better, so I challenge you as you go forward to hold onto that spirit, keep using it, be happy you’re doing what you’re doing and find someone else to do it with you.”