SOUTH BOSTON, Va. - Sitting on a table just inside the front door of The Prizery is a small metal sign that sums up the movement sweeping Downtown South Boston.
“Dream!” the sign reads.
For the small group of community leaders and business entrepreneurs who have dared to dream, the renaissance they’ve begun in the once thriving downtown is transforming the character of the area and putting South Boston back on the map as a destination for both tourists and locals.
Eighteen years after Wal-Mart arrived and began luring customers away, downtown is staging a comeback.
Gone are the mom-and-pop hardware stores and clothing shops. In are boutiques, gourmet food stores, upscale restaurants, educational centers, and the cultural focal point of it all, The Prizery.
South Boston officials say they know they can’t beat Wal-Mart, so they’re not going to try. Instead, the town is focusing on a niche that has been absent from South Boston for a long time.
By most accounts, the cultural rebirth of downtown South Boston began in August 2001, when the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center opened in the circa 1850 Export Leaf Tobacco building on a hill overlooking downtown and the Dan River.
“When it was decided to put the higher education center downtown, that was the beginning of looking at downtown in a new and different way,” said Nancy Pool, president of the Halifax County Chamber of Commerce.
A partnership of eight Virginia colleges, the SVHEC offers associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in 20 disciplines and 12 degree programs.
“When the higher education center arrived, it started to bring back foot traffic and people to downtown who might otherwise have stayed away,” Poll said.
SVHEC director Amy Lammerts said she views the school as more of a community center than strictly an educational institution.
“We have the opportunity to bring in any program that our community needs,” she said. “We are part of the whole link with downtown to bring extensive cultural programs and stimulate the economic revitalization of the whole area.”
Another component of the SVHEC is keeping people in town who might otherwise be forced to leave in search of higher education, an exodus that plagues the area because many students leave and never come back.
“When we moved here two years ago, we basically catered to the adult learner, but now we’re seeing a big increase in the number of students coming here who are of college age and see this as a college setting,” Lammerts said.
With the SVHEC in place, work began next door on the what may be the most significant anchor store to lure people back downtown - The Prizery.
Carved out of a 38,000-square-foot, 19th-century tobacco warehouse, The Prizery bills itself as “a community, fine arts and welcome center.”
Like many involved in the revitalization going on in South Boston, Chris Jones, the executive director of The Prizery, likes to talk about fostering the “creative class.”
Based on the ideas first put forth in Richard Florida’s recent book, “The Rise of the Creative Class,” Jones and others in South Boston believe that the revitalization of the community needs to be based first and foremost on arts and culture.
The Prizery revitalization project is spearheaded by the volunteer-led Community Arts Foundation. The lobby and a function room opened in June. An 18-month overhaul of the structure is slated to get under way in February.
Funded by $1.5 million in privately raised money, a $1.5 million match from South Boston Town Council and the Halifax County Board of Supervisors, and $2 million in historic tax credits, the renovations are slated for completion in late 2005.
When completed, The Prizery will feature a 326-seat theater suitable for everything from plays and symphonies to pop concerts and lectures, a 400-seat banquet hall - the largest of its kind in the area - for functions and receptions, a high-security art gallery, art classrooms equipped for a variety of media, a ballet studio and music classrooms to supplement those offered in the schools.
In addition, The Prizery will serve as a welcome center with lockers and restrooms for pedestrians and cyclists who use the trails being developed on the old railroad bed nearby.
“It’s all about quality of life,” Jones said. “If we’re going to compete with other places to get businesses and people to move to this area, we’ve got to address the quality of life.
“And this little hill is a big part of the renaissance,” Jones said of The Prizery and the adjacent SVHEC. “It’s getting people downtown again - to shop, to eat, to take a class.”
The death and rebirth of downtown South Boston began in the mid-1980s when retail giant Wal-Mart opened its doors on Old Halifax Road.
In the all-too-familiar scene that has played itself out across the nation, mom-and-pop stores slowly closed their doors, unable to compete with the retail giant. Soon, downtown South Boston began its descent toward becoming a virtual ghost town.
Around that time, local leaders - realizing the inevitable - began transforming the streetscape around downtown and Main Street to make the area more inviting.
Utility wires were placed underground and new trees were planted along sidewalks to make the area more pedestrian friendly.
While the improvements fell far short of saving the area, they did pave the way for the future.
“I think it’s a bright future,” said John Lantor, owner of Lantor’s Store.
Lantor’s family has owned and operated the women’s clothing store on Main Street in South Boston since 1906. “We went through the down times like everyone else,” Lantor said. “There were a lot of empty businesses on Main Street, but it looks like we’ve kind of weathered the storm, and the stores are filling up again.”
One person with a unique view of downtown’s revitalization is South Boston Town Councilman Tom Raab. Raab has owned Electric Service Co. for the past 24 years, and he too believes things in the downtown area are turning around.
“We were like all typical towns, in that downtown used to be the only place you could go. But then the strip centers came in, and the big foot that hit us was, of course, Wal-Mart,” he said. “In a small town, Wal-Mart just sucks the money out.”
But now, according to Raab, the SVHEC and The Prizery are bringing the people back, and they’re willing to spend a little more to get better service and a quality selection of goods.
Another store that has both weathered the storm and played a part in the rejuvenation is Enchanted Surroundings.
When the mother-and-son team of Patsy and Gary Owen first opened their unique establishment nine years ago, it was quite by accident.
They purchased the 1891 building that once housed Ed’s Used Furniture with the plan of using it for storage.
But, as Gary Owen tells the story, “people kept banging on the door wondering what we were going to open.”
Both avid antique collectors, Gary and Patsy cleared out a room, painted it red, put a sign out front, and opened as an antique shop with an inventory from their own collection.
They sold everything in the store the first day.
Nine years later, Enchanted Surroundings offers “a magical blend of primitive antique furnishings, garden delights, and all of the wonderful modern accessories to make your home a luxurious retreat,” according to its Web site.
When Enchanted Surroundings opened, Gary Owen said downtown was a barren wasteland and, with the exception of Lanton’s, it was the only business on Main Street.
But the shop’s immediate success taught Gary and Patsy Owens that there was a market downtown. The key was to find a niche.
When Bistro 1888 first opened its doors in March, South Boston was buzzing.
“Have you been to the new bistro?” became a conversation starter all over town.
The brainchild of businesswoman Barbara Cage and chef Margaret Moorfield, the upscale eatery on Main Street quickly became a phenomenon.
“What we hear so much is, ‘Thank you for doing this,’” Moorfield said. “People were looking for something to do, and our restaurant not only gives people a place to get a great meal but it’s a place to come and see friends and socialize.”
Both Halifax County natives, Cage and Moorfield moved away from the area for nearly two decades before returning to their roots. What they saw when they returned was a need for not just upscale food but upscale culture.
“This is filling a niche that’s been needed for a long time, and it’s putting feet back on the sidewalks again,” Moorfield said.
The pair envisioned the bistro as an anchor store on Main Street to give people another reason to come back downtown.
Cage and Moorfield conducted market research before opening, and found that while the economic demographics of the area did not support a high-end eatery, people in the area were routinely making the long haul to Lynchburg, Richmond and the Triangle in search of upscale dining.
<“People are spending money. They were just not spending it here,” Cage said.
Today, about a third of Bistro 1888’s business comes from out of town, including clientele as far away as Charlotte and Baltimore.
“A restaurant is a big part of revitalizing a downtown,” Cage said. “And our business has exceeded our projections from day one and we’re still growing. Right now, there’s a lot of momentum.”
Adding to that momentum is The Vinter’s Cellar, a gourmet food and wine store located just a few doors down from Bistro 1888.
Originally located in the back of Enchanted Surroundings, The Vinter’s Cellar moved to the its new facility - the former home of Tomz lighting and furniture store - in September.
“We’re part of the renaissance that’s not trying to compete with the big boys (Wal-Mart and Lowes),” company president Gene Haugh said. “That’s the key to all these businesses.
“You could never open a hardware store downtown and survive. You have to go with a niche and find something that’s not offered anywhere else.”
One new store that has filled a niche is Puff n’ Stuff, a 1950s-style soda fountain, lunch counter and newsstand.
Opened in the former site of Faulkner & Lawson’s drug store, a popular local establishment that opened in 1958 and served items similar to those offered at Puff n’stuff, Tom Shepherd’s business caters to people who want to stop downtown for a quick cup of coffee or a bite to eat.
“I was so sad after Faulkner & Lawson’s closed because there ws nowhere people could got to get a grilled cheese sandwich or a good cup of coffee,” Shepherd said.
“I thought that if I opened this, it would help businesses come back, because I was so interested in helping downtown revitalize.
“I’m so into downtown being a place to relax and enjoy your shopping. We’re not out to compete with Wal-Mart. We’re out to give our community what Wal-Mart can’t.”
Puff n’ Stuff also sells a line of South Boston souvenirs, and the 600 oval “SOBOVA” stickers it has sold dot car bumpers all over town.
Trying something so bold, so out of character for a rural area with a slumping economy and high unemployment is not without risk.
Already, there have been two casualties of the downtown revolution.
Berry Hill Plantation, one of the crown jewels of Halifax County, recently shuttered its doors due to ownership problems.
Without Berry Hill, the area lost one of its huge draws, not to mention top-shelf accommodations for out-of-town guests.
“Berry Hill is vital to the equation,” Halifax County Tourism Director Linda Shepperd said. “Berry Hill’s closing made people realize how important something like that is.”
Pool said Berry Hill was one of the anchors of the downtown revitalization, adding its loss presents a problem as the town tries convince the 300,000 people a year who visit South Boston Speedway and Virginia International Raceway to spend more time in the area.
Another casualty in the downtown area was The Gathering Spot, an eclectic eatery that was a combination coffee shop, music space, cyber cafe, art gallery and lunch spot located across the street from The Prizery and SVHEC.
While it recently closed after just a little over a year in business, many in the community thought The Gathering Spot was on the right track, but may have been too far ahead of the curve.
Still, its demise has served as a cautionary tale that a downtown revolution does not happen overnight, and needs to proceed in careful stages.
“Cultural package” is a term often thrown around when discussing what is happening in downtown South Boston.
A new group is focused on nurturing that package and making it attractive to tourists and locals.
“Destination Downtown South Boston” is a combination of two downtown groups that have joined together to add more structure and vision to the revitalization, said Tamyra Vest, South Boston’s community development coordinator.
“In the past, we’ve focused here and there on certain things, but we haven’t looked down the road,” Vest said. The group’s main focus is securing approval to join the Virginia Main Streets program, which will provide technical assistance and put South Boston in a network with other small towns.
Now classified as a “Start-up community,” South Boston is hoping to apply for full designation with Virginia Main Streets in April.
“Things are definitely happening,” Vest said. “Once the shovel went into the ground for the college and the community realized these crazy arts folks had a real dream, people took notice.”
The day after ground was broken for the college, developers bought three buildings on Main Street.
“The community noticed that there were things going on in an area where people used to sleep in the back of buildings. Now, you see people going to black-tie affairs,” Vest said.
Another focus of the cultural package has been the “after 5” aspect of downtown.
“Night life is vital to the community, so the more people we can create on the street after 5 p.m., the better,” Vest said.
Vest and others have been promoting “Living Lofty in South Boston,” a movement geared toward converting the upper floors of businesses into loft apartments.
The goal is to turn downtown into a residential community, keeping the streets alive after dark and fostering a community that wants "no grass to mow" and “easy access to coffee and newspapers,” Vest said.
Several loft apartments have already opened above Bistro 1888.
“We’re trying to center (downtown) around people,” Vest said.
Downtown’s night life recently got a boost from “Night on the Town,” an event that offered people a chance to enjoy the area’s historic Victorian architecture from a horse-drawn carriage, check out the holiday decorations while listening to caroling, and explore the shops, which stayed open late for the occasion.
The event was a smash hit, according to organizers.
Many people say that all great thinkers are risk takers, and for those gambling on South Boston, optimism greatly outweighs the potential for failure.
“I think it’s just the beginning,” Pool said. “The whole revitalization package is going to continue to grow and diversify.
“What I see is we’re making Halifax County a destination. We’re working to make it one of those places that people want to come visit for a variety of reasons.
“It won’t be shopping alone that brings people back. We’ve got to capitalize on our cultural attractions, our history.
“When you package it all together, it makes it more of an allure. We can market ourselves to people and say, ’We have fine dining, the theater, the museum, driving tours, antiques, specialty shops.’ It’s not just VIR and the speedway.
“Quality of life is all about having choices.”
If the downtown revolutionaries have their way, that choice will be South Boston.
Contact Billy Baker at email@example.com or at (434) 793-2311, Ext. 3042.