The Shenandoah Valley city of Buena Vista has long been economically depressed. Now that a Roanoke developer snapped up 11 buildings downtown, however, some wonder if the old manufacturing town just outside of Lexington is ripe for a revival.
Driving through Buena Vista, it’s easy to think the town should be a happening place. It’s right on a river. The Blue Ridge Parkway and Appalachian Trail are a skip away. The views are stunning. There’s a university. If you squint your eyes as you stroll downtown, you can almost imagine couples sitting outside a hip restaurant clinking glasses over having discovered this place.
But BV, as it’s known, has had its share of troubles.
"It’s a pretty poor area," admits Steve Baldridge, a city councilman and professor at Southern Virginia University. He also co-owns a law firm in town. "There’s a bit of an insider/outsider feel, clearly. I’ve been told you’re not from here unless you graduated from high school here and so the fact that I’ve been here for 20 years just means I’m a helpful outsider."
BV is an old factory town without a lot of working factories anymore. It’s been flooded repeatedly. And the town was recently sued for defaulting on a $9 million golf course debt for which city hall and the police department were put up as collateral. A federal judge recently threw out that case but it didn’t make for great publicity.
But in a weird way, BV’s reclusiveness and hardships are part of its gritty charm.
"The attitudes are great. The community is solid. So I’m very optimistic for its tomorrow," says Andy Wolfe. Wolfe has been running his online publishing and marketing business in downtown Buena Vista for 14 years.
He’s not the only one rooting for BV.
"I pull for the underdog every time," says Ed Walker, a prominent Roanoke developer. He surprised a lot of residents by purchasing eleven buildings downtown. He paid just over $1 million, far less than the total assessed value. He’s expected to invest some $5 million in renovations. "We’re excited about some wonderful opportunities that are sort of hidden in plain view, not least of which is SVU."
Buena Vista is an untapped college town. Southern Virginia University, a Mormon college, has been growing a lot -- 40 percent in five years. Fall enrollment was up 15 percent over last year. All those young people need places to go.
"I would expect to see at least one new restaurant. I’d expect to see live music," Walker says. "I would hope to see some apartments. We have a great bakery from Provo, Utah that’s interested in locating there.
Walker comes with an impressive track record. He played a key role in revitalizing Roanoke’s downtown by buying up several old buildings and turning them into living spaces. Tax credits for historic renovations and loan packages from the city helped with the financing.
Playing to the town’s existing strengths seems to be Walker’s plan. "What’s most interesting is to try to gently enter a community and listen to what they’re interested in. I think to explore the public history of a municipality is wildly interesting. To find out what the music tradition is, for example, then try to build some of that into programming."
The acquisitions are also part teaching tool. Walker teaches a social entrepreneur real estate class at the law school at Washington and Lee. He says students decided which buildings his company should purchase, and are charged with figuring out what to do with them. "They did all the work. I’m a big believer in building that capacity in young people."
Walker says the best way to learn about real estate is to do it.