By Zach England
Developer Ed Walker came to Buena Vista in late 2017 with a plan to revitalize downtown’s Magnolia Avenue.
He wanted to see buildings “brought back to life” and “sold to some great people that went on to do some good things.”
“I’d like to be able to drive down Magnolia with a different sense of energy,” Walker said in an interview with the Rockbridge Report last year.
But now, Walker’s GoBV enterprise is auctioning off 11 properties Nov. 1-17, reflecting a collapse of multiple projects due to lack of funds and COVID-19, among other issues.
For instance, a project to move the library and convert the building into a boutique hotel ended up failing. GoBV developed plans, but no one stepped in with funding, according to project manager Jamie Goodin.
“Getting those stars to align, it just didn’t happen,” he said.
The developer also worked to relocate the Buena Vista Arts Council, but the arts group decided to renovate its current building rather than moving.
Prior to COVID-19, two more businesses planned to move into empty spaces, but the pandemic changed that plan, said Tom Roberts, Buena Vista’s director of planning and community development.
One of them was a place people could go to throw axes at targets and get refreshments, but the establishment would not be able to operate under current restrictions on entertainment venues.
Roberts said COVID-19 has also hurt the ability to attract other potential new businesses, such as restaurants, to occupy the downtown space.
Walker told the Rockbridge Report he would have liked to have seen more success.
“The best outcome would be that we’d be preparing for the grand opening of the library in the spring,” he said. “We would’ve been able to open some of the things like the ax-throwing…that just didn’t happen.”
But at the same time, Walker stressed some of GoBV’s achievements. It recently sold the old Ford dealership property on Forest and 20th Street to Dabney S. Lancaster Community College, which plans to turn the space into a workplace development site.
Roberts hopes it will bring more traffic downtown.
“That’s going to be a really great expansion of Dabney’s presence,” he said.
Additionally, GoBV has renovated and rented 10 apartments and demolished two dilapidated buildings. It has also helped bring in a $100,000 grant to install a professional mural downtown and a $50,000 grant from the state to fund strategic planning for the city.
“At a minimum, you want to leave a place better than you found it. Even if your bigger ideas, the sort of better and best aspirations, aren’t realized for a reason,” Walker said.
The grant for strategic planning is an important one, Roberts said. The extra resources are helping the city develop a plan by December for Buena Vista’s downtown revitalization, which could then lead to implementation funding and a stronger application for other grants.
The document will also be used to attract and introduce future investors to Buena Vista once Walker is gone.
“He’s leaving now, but someone else is going to buy the buildings,” Roberts said. “It’s someone else who is going to have a development opportunity, and we the city will be eager to work with whoever those next people are.”
Walker’s decision came earlier than expected. He had originally planned for a May 2021 departure, but now he said he’ll be done in December 2020. He said his announcement of the auction sped up the process and he is now working on contracts for a few properties.
Goodin said he is unsure all of the properties will sell at auction, and in that case GoBV would continue to work with what is left. He hopes the community will rally around the auction, saying “it has never been more affordable for local people to invest in their downtown.”