A depressing tour through Virginia's South Side

To understand what can happen to a community when the economic base packs up and leaves town, one only has to tour the once-thriving South Side of Virginia where the furniture industry and textile mills dusted off their passports and hit the road for foreign shores.

I headed Southeast on my motorcycle Wednesday for a tour of the South Side. It wasn't pretty.

Bassett, once home to huge furniture factories, looks like a bombed out European city from World War II. Travel U.S. 57 through the heart of the town and you see empty stores and people with vacant stares sitting on porches.  The same is true in Martinsville where empty storefronts line Main Street in downtown while banners fly from lightpoles proclaiming the community a "city without limits."

Head East on U.S. 58 and you come to Danville, where the city's signature Dan River Mills started shifting most of its jobs overseas years ago and imploded the signature Dye House along the river last November. Danville's economic base is more diverse than Martinsville or Bassett but the city is still trying to rebuild the economic vitality that once defined the area.

From Danville I headed North on U.S. 29 and then East on Virginia 40 at Gretna to the South End of Smith Mountain Lake, where huge homes stand empty from foreclosures and the housing market crash. More than one commercial development sits empty or unfinished as a monument to bad planning.

I was happy to come home to Floyd, where optimism remains high and only one empty storefront is found on Main Street. The textile industry also once fueled Floyd's economy but the buildings that once housed the factories are not empty shells. They house small businesses today. Floyd's last remaining new car dealership, Harvey Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep, was not on the list of 879 dealers that the ailing auto company will close. The town's only furniture and appliance store announced its closing last year..

A trip through Virginia's South Side reminds one that our economy is fragile and the future is never certain.

To understand what can happen to a community when the economic base packs up and leaves town, one only has to tour the once-thriving South Side of Virginia where the furniture industry and textile mills dusted off their passports and hit the road for foreign shores.

I headed Southeast on my motorcycle Wednesday for a tour of the South Side. It wasn’t pretty.

Bassett, once home to huge furniture factories, looks like a bombed out European city from World War II. Travel U.S. 57 through the heart of the town and you see empty stores and people with vacant stares sitting on porches.  The same is true in Martinsville where empty storefronts line Main Street in downtown while banners fly from lightpoles proclaiming the community a "city without limits."

Head East on U.S. 58 and you come to Danville, where the city’s signature Dan River Mills started shifting most of its jobs overseas years ago and imploded the signature Dye House along the river last November. Danville’s economic base is more diverse than Martinsville or Bassett but the city is still trying to rebuild the economic vitality that once defined the area.

From Danville I headed North on U.S. 29 and then East on Virginia 40 at Gretna to the South End of Smith Mountain Lake, where huge homes stand empty from foreclosures and the housing market crash. More than one commercial development sits empty or unfinished as a monument to bad planning.

I was happy to come home to Floyd, where optimism remains high and only one empty storefront is found on Main Street. The textile industry also once fueled Floyd’s economy but the buildings that once housed the factories are not empty shells. They house small businesses today. Floyd’s last remaining new car dealership, Harvey Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep, was not on the list of 879 dealers that the ailing auto company will close. The town’s only furniture and appliance store announced its closing last year..

A trip through Virginia’s South Side reminds one that our economy is fragile and the future is never certain.

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3 Responses

  1. As a resident of Martinsville, I can testify to it’s gloomy present. Our unemployment rate is the highest in the state, at a little over 20%. Friends, neighbors and family are unusally quiet. Most of them are fearful, but hopeful. I was hit by a round of lay offs in November and am still looking for employment. It looks as if I will have to go into North Carolina or travel into Roanoke. We here in this area hope that our once thriving, beautiful area will rebound in some manner. Our hope sometimes seems forlorn and sad, but it’s all that keeps us focused and hanging on.

    There are jobs here, one just has to root them out and compete against the thousand or so that managed to find them as well. The hunt sometimes feels too overwhelming and discourging emotions override the optimism you feel when you begin your search each morning. Listening to the gloom and doom forecasts on the news and talk radio makes it even more upsetting. There are days that you just can’t muster the desire to even try and there are days that your determination seems to be in overdrive. But the fact remains…Southside Virginia needs help.

    Violence is on the increase here as it is in most other areas. Inability to find work, inability to pay your daily living expenses, pay for food, gas and your home, drive those that are already down hearted and feeling beaten, to do the unthinkable. With your savings nearly gone and no hope in sight, fear sets in, but for most of us who love and have pride in our community, we will find a way! For all those who have given up we have to pray that someone will reach out and help.

    I am now in my 50’s and have taken time to reflect on the couple of recessions that I have worked through. I can honestly say that either I was lucky and those times didn’t affect me or that I was pleasantly ignorant to the fact that they were even occurring. My age now is a factor in finding a job and finding one that I can do. I have never lived life with regret, but I find myself wishing that I had done many things differently at many times. I have thankfully always found a way to manage and am doing so now, but the fear and inadequacy that I feel some days is very overwhelming.

    I am thankful each day that I have been given and will live each one as if it is my last. Hope keeps me focused and knowing that I am able to manage keeps me sane.

    Thanks very much for writing about our area. It once was and will be again, a prosperous “city without limits”.

  2. I lived for years in the southeastern MA area between New Bedford and Fall River. Both cities, not quite 100,000 residents each, were once big textile areas, working class areas, loaded with mills and associated businesses. In fact, the college I attended had its roots in providing professional talent for the textile industry. Then came the move to the south, where the cotton was grown, and the wages lower, and southeastern MA has never recovered, as much as they tried. Southside VA is going through the same cycle, as the textile industry moved off shore in search of lower costs and cheaper workers. I wish you luck in finding a way back to prosperity.

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