In September, Pulaski’s town council voted to change Main and Third streets from one-way to two-way. Some stoplights have been removed, and speed limits on some streets have been reduced.
Streets in and around town once carried heavy trucks to and from textile mills, foundries and furniture factories. Now, different wheels are turning. Bicyclists are navigating drops, jumps and rollers at a new mountain bike park. Skateboarders do stunts at Matthew Akers Skatepark, part of First Street Park, which opened on June 15.
An infusion of money is remaking West Main Street, from new waterlines planned for underground, to apartments on the top floors of renovated buildings.
A town that four years ago was in the headlines for the opioid crisis is enjoying some good news for a change. “It’s going through a revitalization, a reinvention, a transformation and a regional impact that could show how important these rural communities are to growth centers such as Virginia Tech,” said 30-year-old developer Luke Allison.
Darlene Burcham is Pulaski’s town manager. “I think after COVID, we and other communities were pleasantly surprised that people started looking at us,” she said. “Some of the developers that have purchased land in our community are from outside the area. We have a more reasonable cost of living and doing business right now than some of the communities to our north. And so people are looking at us as an attractive place to make their home or to develop their business. And we’re going to take advantage of it.”
Transformation is coming to a block of West Main Street between Jefferson and Washington Avenues. “We’re busting up all of Main Street,” Mayor Shannon Collins said. “Everything will be redone.”
The first step in the remaking of West Main will be replacing and enlarging the water line in the center of the street, Burcham said, and then installing four lateral lines branching from it. The water line and laterals are being funded with approximately $650,000 from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.
After the council and the community has examined plans for the streetscape, probably in spring 2023, Burcham said, the town will install curbs, gutters, sidewalk, tree beds, and stormwater improvements. Two VDOT grants, totaling $1,063,902, will pay for streetscape improvements. Final paving will be funded from the annual street maintenance budget.
Luke Allison is project manager at Aggregate Capital, LLC. Allison and his partners have completed the renovation of 29, 87, 89, and 94 West Main; 37 West Main, under construction, is the future home of a Bluegrass BBQ location. Allison’s group also has 80 and 81 West Main under contract.
The renovated buildings are mixed use with apartments on the top floor: 29 is a co-working space; 87 is the location of Pulaski on Main, a nonprofit which supports and promotes downtown businesses and events; and 89 houses the art studios of Painting in the Spirit.
The buildings at 37, 87, 89 and 94 are owned by investment groups composed of “a lot of individuals like myself that just see this potential in Pulaski,” Allison said. Historic tax credits made the projects economically feasible.
Roanoke entrepreneur Brent Cochran’s group, Peak Creek Partners, is developing 67, 69 and 73 West Main Street, and 0 and 34 First Street Northwest. He hopes to finish the Main Street buildings in late 2023 or early 2024, and the First Street buildings in 2024 or 2025.
“You got the nice Main Street, you have the buildings, that’s step one, and then you’ve got an economy that seems to be moving in the right direction,” Cochran said. “And it seems to be very much kind of becoming a bedroom community of Blacksburg. The cost of living and everything else in Blacksburg has become really high, it’s pushing people out, and they don’t have a lot of additional room to build.”
The county is working with developers to retrofit two former schools within town limits, said Pulaski County administrator Jonathan Sweet. Claremont Elementary School is being converted to affordable residential units and the old Pulaski Middle School is being converted to market-rate units.
Many downtown businesses have new signs with a coordinated design. “It looks nice, it looks uniform,” said Shannon Ainsley, executive director of the Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce.
Other new attractions in downtown include a LOVE sign, part of the Virginia Tourism Corporation’s LOVEworks tourism campaign, and a ChargePoint electric vehicle charging station on Washington Avenue. “So people traveling will see that on their app, and know that they can come downtown, charge, walk around, eat lunch and stuff,” Collins said.
In the works is a splash pad. “It’ll be like a big concrete circle with jets,” Collins said. “They can go over, hit a button, it’ll shoot water up for say, two minutes or something, so the kids can play in it in the summer.”
For bigger kids and adults, there’s the new Pulaski Mountain Bike Park, just inside town limits, which opened on Oct. 12 at 1990 East Main Street. The park challenges riders with some 35 wooden features, including a teeter totter, spread over a seven-acre course. The nearly $400,000 cost was funded by the American Rescue Plan Act.
Nate Repass, outdoor facilities coordinator, said he hopes it will draw locals and tourists alike. Travelers can exit Interstate 81, enjoy the bike park, then go downtown to eat and shop.
Sweet said recreation projects like the bike park will help attract young professionals and outdoor enthusiasts to the community, and “help shift the perception of what the town of Pulaski is and what it can be.”
Burcham, the town manager, said, “Everything that we’re doing is designed to not only help and assist and make things available to our residents, but to bring new people into the community to see Pulaski, oftentimes for the first time.”
Burcham was Roanoke’s city manager and Clifton Forge’s town manager before Pulaski. “I’ve been in Virginia my entire professional career,” she said. “And I know from experience, that the way you sell a community is to get people to visit it first time. This mountain bike park is one of the ways that we’ll have people visit.”
Shannon Collins grew up in Giles County. He has lived in Pulaski for 20-plus years and has worked in the town for 30 years. He worked at his family’s Exxon station before taking over Poor Boys Produce. He became mayor in 2020.
“My dad told me years ago, if you don’t like how stuff is happening in your town, or in general, try to make a difference,” he said. “If you can’t make a difference, it’s one thing, but if you don’t try, don’t complain about it. So I was tired of our town being called just derogatory things and people thinking that it was nothing but a drug bin and stuff like that. And I knew the people here, I knew that people were good people, and the town’s got good bones. So I decided to run and I won. And I’m running again. I have to run every two years. So the election’s in November. No one’s running against me. Hope that’s because I’m doing a good job and not just because people don’t want to get out and try to make a change.”
Collins, who has a same-sex partner, sees a shift in this traditionally conservative Appalachian town.
“I feel like Pulaski has moved forward to accepting more people. Last year we had stuff happening in our house, we had tours at Christmas. We ended up in a magazine … for Christmas decorations. And we had nothing but support from our community.
“I feel like good stuff is finally happening here.”
In addition to a greater focus on amenities and recreation, there’s no doubt that the emerging Pulaski will be different in a concrete way — literally — in terms of physical attributes like traffic patterns that have been familiar to residents for generations.
“I think we’re able to do what we’re doing because the town council is super-supportive of the changes that need to be made,” Burcham said. “And some of those changes are difficult for people to accept at first, but in the long run, I think they’ll see that it’s going to make this community come back. Not like it was before, but the way it should be in the future.”