Old buildings, rows upon rows of them.

Musty, old-fashioned and usually in dire need of repair.

We have a downtown full of old buildings and they don’t seem to have any life left — just a reminder of generations gone by. Why would anyone spend time trying to bring them back to life? Why don’t we just tear them down?

These are just a few things you hear in this business of revitalizing historic downtowns. It can be hard to understand the value of these monuments to yesteryear. But what if I were to tell you that, by leaving them empty and not taking time and effort to find new uses and bring them back to glory, that our community would be losing funds that could be used for schools, infrastructure and public safety all over the city?

There are many reasons we should work to restore the historic heart and soul of our community. Not only are dilapidated buildings an eyesore, they can also affect such additional factors as crime, community vitality and public health. Left to rot, they would contribute to a loss of our notable history and culture. In addition, many of the materials used to construct buildings at that time are superior to many of the materials in use today and, if properly restored, will last another century and beyond.

Cost of empty building

Dilapidated downtowns can also dissuade developers from making new investments into any additional areas of the community. A great example of this is the story of a developer who long ago flew into Danville to meet with city leaders about a potential economic development project, and along the way decided to drive though the downtown to see what was happening in the center of our city. At that time downtown Danville was mostly desolate, abandoned and in terrible disrepair. He saw broken sidewalks blocked off in sections due to disintegration of some of the building facades. Without hesitation, he turned around and left without even showing up to the meeting. Afterward, when asked why he left, the developer explained that he was not interested in making an investment into a community that did not invest in itself.

But even beyond that, there is the money for our entire community left on the table if we ignore the possibility of reusing these structures. Donovan D. Rypkema, principal of PlaceEconomics, has explained it in way that all of us can understand. To quote Virginia Main Street in their example of Rypkema's work, their example is not perfect, but it is a good place to start to begin to understand the value:

“Calculating the impact of that white elephant building is possible with just one factor: rent. The rent a building owner intends to charge can tell us many things, from how much can be invested in the building, to the volume of sales needed to afford the space post-rehab, how much annual income a renter is making, and the catalytic impact of creating an upper-story housing unit for that renter. You first start with a basic understanding of what opportunities are being missed by the property sitting vacant. By using these basic formulas and figures derived from a Consumer Expenditure Index, you can make reasonable generalizations.”

For example, let’s look at a typical two- or three-story building in our downtown. For each unit of an upper-story building that is converted into residential use, there is the income to local architects, construction workers and suppliers. Once complete, there is taxable income for the property owner, taxable spending that is contributed directly into local downtown businesses by the renter and the rise in property value which equals additional property taxes collected by the city.

For commercial use on the bottom floor, factoring in costs such as rent, marketing, labor, supplies, utilities and additional taxes and fees, the bottom story of a mixed-use building could easily contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars to the local economy. This reuse also brings additional jobs, contributes to quality of place and drives additional foot traffic by visitors from out of town. And this method is currently being repeated in buildings across our downtown and in downtowns across the United States. This collective value is a proven way to revitalize local economies and bring much-needed funds into municipal coffers. And great news for residents, that funding does not stay just in downtown but is utilized for the betterment of citizens across the city.

Money from buildings

I recently spoke to someone that is a passionate guardian of some of these beautiful storefronts and buildings downtown but is still somewhat hesitant to believe that money spent to revive the downtown would be successful. My answer to that thought comes in the form of a sincere and open question.

What else would we do with our downtown? How else will we begin to bring additional diverse funding to our city? Especially when so much of it is in the form of grants and other outside assistance. Are we to let this opportunity lie dormant and continue to despair like so many other small towns and cities? Or will we honor the generations that came before us, and take calculated risks that could well lead to success? Like so many other communities that are committed to taking this approach, I am willing to make an educated bet that when it comes to both saving our downtown and bringing improvement to our citizens, that the risks are well worth the rewards.

Schwartz is the executive director of the River District Association in Danville. Contact her at (434) 791-0210 or diana@riverdistrictassociation.com. Learn more about the organization at www.riverdistrictassociation.com.

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