By Jack Hunter
The city of Buena Vista has had its troubles. Multiple floods in the late 1980s and 1990s decimated the area. Large manufacturers packed up and left over time, taking jobs and families with them. The city defaulted and then stopped paying in 2015 for a golf course that officials thought would save it. Then, the city, like the rest of the world, faced the COVID-19 pandemic.
But Buena Vista didn’t lose faith in Buena Vista.
“Buena Vista doesn’t just lay down and die,” Mayor William “Billy” Fitzgerald said. “We constantly fight, and we’re constantly moving forward. You know, it might look like it’s dying, but we still fight to keep it going.”
Fitzgerald said there’s a new energy in the city:
- Both Mountain Gateway Community College and Southern Virginia University are growing.
- New businesses are filling a once-empty downtown area with support from local non-profits.
- The city is in the process of replacing the electrical grid and water lines in the campgrounds at Glen Maury Park.
- And City Council will soon vote on a new town square that would be a large gathering space in the heart of downtown.
Fitzgerald said it’s not been easy. He said Buena Vista had a hard time getting grants or lower-interest loans because the default on the golf course “financially crippled” the city and hurt its credit rating. Last year, Buena Vista paid just over $300,000 to settle its debts on the golf course, which is now privately owned.
Mountain Gateway Community College is building a workforce development center at the old Courtesy Ford dealership on Forest Avenue. The community college received a $3 million federal grant in October to help fund the project. The workforce development program will train people in heating, ventilation, air conditioning, electrical and plumbing skills.
Southern Virginia University is also booming. It now enrolls over 1,100 students compared to 661 students in 2013.
Tom Roberts, BV’s director of community development, said SVU’s growth has played a part in growing the city.
“That’s been helpful, in terms of like, both energy and symbolism,” he said. “But, also, purely the students and the number of people here related to students and staff, there’s just more people here who are in some way associated with the college, and they have a real economic benefit.”
The Virginia Innovation Accelerator, a nonprofit business incubator, was established to help entrepreneurs create and maintain new businesses in Buena Vista. Right now, the Accelerator operates out of the old Mundet-Hermetite factory where it hosts at least a half-dozen businesses that need nurturing to catch on with consumers. One business grows gourmet and medicinal mushrooms. Another says it provides drone and artificial intelligence technology to the U.S. Defense Department.
The Accelerator is operated by the Advancement Foundation, a nonprofit that works with economic and community development organizations in Virginia. The Virginia Industrial Revitalization Fund awarded the foundation with a $985,000 grant in early January to continue renovating and expanding the Accelerator. The program’s leaders want to build a brewery, café and retail space, among other things, in part of the old factory.
The Advancement Foundation trained Madeleine Wells, a 2021 graduate of SVU , who opened the BeeVe, an ice cream and souvenir store on the corner of 22nd Street and Magnolia Avenue.
She said she learned how to network with other entrepreneurs and polish her business plan before opening her store.
“I expected people to support the business because they were interested in ice cream,” said Wells, who opened The BeeVe last September. “And instead, I feel like I’ve found so much support because people are interested in new business.”
Wells said she wanted to start her business to give people in Buena Vista, especially SVU students, a space to gather.
“Going to SVU, you spend a lot of time driving to Lexington for things to do,” she said. “And, so I wanted to, kind of, create a space that would be a fun place to hang out.”
Lauren Johnson and her husband, Greg, opened Straws, a soda shop, downtown in July 2022.
“We were actually expecting it to be all SVU students, you know, because they’re all from like Utah, Idaho, Colorado area, so we thought by bringing a piece of what they’re used to here, it would be a good area for them,” Johnson said. “But I would actually say a larger part of our customers are locals, specifically middle school and high school students.”
Straws is rarely quiet. Starting with the 3 p.m. on weekdays, there’s usually a rush of middle and high-school kids who hang out in the store. It also hosts crowds on the weekends with events such as karaoke, birthday parties and speed-dating.
Other businesses are attracting residents to downtown, including Katana, a sushi and hibachi restaurant that moved into a permanent location in February after opening last summer as a food truck. Last week, Vinyl Cuts moved its storefront graphics and signs business into a larger space downtown where it also sells an assortment of jewelry, home décor and school supplies.
“A couple years ago, we didn’t have businesses on main street,” the mayor said. “We would have, like, two businesses on each block, the rest of them empty. And now we might have two empty buildings on each block.”
The city is also sprucing up the local park. City Manager Jason Tyree said the city is spending over $1 million at Glen Maury Park to replace the park’s electrical grid. The city is using American Rescue Plan Act funds to complete the project.
“Our park is really the gem of the city to me,” Tyree said last month. “It’s such a great opportunity for the city to capitalize.”
Corey Henson, director of public works, said the park needed to replace its electrical grid, which hadn’t been updated in about 50 years. He said work is almost complete in the upper campground, where the city is also replacing the water lines.
Buena Vista has also been working on turning a 125-by-100-foot lot on the corner of Magnolia Avenue and 21st Street into a town square. The city bought the property from Ed Walker in 2021 using a $75,000 grant from the Virginia Outdoors Foundation. Walker has sold 13 of the 14 properties he bought in 2017. The BeeVe, Straws and Vinyl Cuts are all located in buildings Walker used to own.
The city received another grant from Virginia’s economic development authority to do an environmental assessment on the proposed town square and hire a landscape architect. Roberts said he expects to present a finalized design to City Council on March 16.
“We have a covered stage, we have a pavilion that’s sort of designed to accommodate, you know, farmers market, and then we have green space where people can gather,” Roberts said, describing the elements of the design. “We’ll have some hardscaped areas where we’ll have café chairs and tables for people to just hang out.”
If City Council approves, Roberts said, the project will cost several hundred thousand dollars. The city would need to find the money to pay for it.
Johnson, the owner of Straws, said she’s talked to several long-term residents of Buena Vista who were skeptical when she opened. But she said they’re impressed by the progress of her business and others.
Wells said she has had a similar experience. “I’ve found that everyone I’ve talked to is just, they’re just excited,” she said. “They’re ready for Buena Vista to come back and come to life again.”