Could a new development project serve as a blueprint for addressing housing and economic issues in Henry County?
The folks at JRS Realty Partners say they want to give it a try, as they joined Henry County officials Tuesday morning to unveil workforce-geared housing in a historic Fieldale school building.
It’s a gambit Jim Cherney is confident will work, which is why he and his business partner, John Garland, are spearheading a handful of similar projects in areas throughout Henry County.
“It is four in total,” Cherney said, detailing plans in Martinsville and Collinsville as well as the Fieldale site where developers and officials held a ribbon-cutting Tuesday. “We hope to have this ready for occupancy by the end of March.”
The three additional locations slated for workforce housing are Martinsville’s old Winn-Dixie building on Fayette Street, the former John Redd Smith School in Collinsville and the former BB&T in Martinsville. Together the four locations are known as the Martinsville-Henry Historic Collective.
“We take a municipal asset that has outlived its commercial utilization and we revitalize it for workforce housing,” Cherney said about the apartment complex set to open soon in the building that once housed Fieldale High School.
Workforce housing is housing in proximity to where people work, and it drives the philosophy behind the project. Cherney said people are more apt to spend money in the communities where they work if they also live there. This, according to him, is what links housing to economic revitalization.
“There is an impetus to not only attract but to keep people with talents in the community,” Cherney said.
Garland agreed, saying “working here is one thing but living here is great for the economy.”
Garland is both the owner of Garland Properties development firm in Roanoke and Cherney’s partner. According to Cherney, Garland’s area of expertise includes historic preservation while Cherney, owner of Cherney Development Properties, focuses on giving new life to buildings that once housed businesses. This includes projects in Roanoke such as the former Happy’s Flea Market, which is now a Fort Knox Storage facility. Garland’s work includes multiple downtown properties in Roanoke plus the renovation of the former Wythe Elementary School in Hampton.
The pair pooled the resources of their respective firms to create JRS Realty Partners, specifically to pursue the Martinsville-Henry Historic Collective. The two firms have committed a combined $25 million for the overall project. Of that, $3 million was spent on costs associated with renovating the Fieldale School Apartments.
Cherney said there were a number of issues with the Fieldale site prior to renovation. These issues included problems with the plumbing, heating and air conditioning.
“Generally the building was underutilized and there was creeping disrepair,” Cherney said.
Once renovations are completed, the site will have 17 one-bedroom units, four two-bedroom units, and two loft-style units. Prices range from $895-$1,095, according to Cherney.
The building includes an auditorium that was refurbished to serve as a sort of community building. With seating for over 200 people, the space can be used by residents on a priority basis.
Both Cherney and Garland, who have done development projects in Roanoke and other places throughout Virginia, agree that Henry County is ideal for these kinds of revitalization projects.
“I believe Henry County and Martinsville … are positioned to be an upscale bedroom community,” Cherney said, with Garland later adding this was the pair’s first project in Henry County.
Local officials welcomed the investment.
“The county as a whole will surely benefit from this new level of housing, but it’s the community of Fieldale itself that will enjoy a serious infusion of life,” said Debra Buchanan, a member of the Henry County Board of Supervisors. “With 23 apartments located right next door to Fieldale’s main street and the Fieldale Community Center, the village is guaranteed to see the kind of renewed vibrancy we’ve been striving for.”
Fieldale’s population, based on the most recent census numbers, is just over 1,000 people.
County Administrator Dale Wagoner said the project helps Henry County stave off a national problem.
“The lack of high-quality housing has been a challenge for us in our economic development efforts,” Wagoner said. “This innovative use of a former school building is a solid start in addressing that challenge and the apartments will make a great home for members of our growing local workforce.”