Developers move forward with Gypsy Hill Place

The first step was convincing people that the old Robert E. Lee High School was a building worth saving. The men at the head of the development group leading the effort to transform the 80-year-old school campus into the new home for the Staunton Senior Center and ShenanArts didn’t have to do all that much convincing.

“The mayor and the City Council and the economic-development department really reached out to us and helped us understand what this project could become and what the school could be,” said J.P Williamson, a partner in the Charlottesville-based Octagon Partners, which is working with the city and Hampton Roads Ventures on the $20.4 million Gypsy Hill Place project, at a groundbreaking ceremony at the site held Friday morning.

Staunton just simply seems to get it – that you can’t sit back and hope things happen, that you have to make them happen. Former mayor John Avoli talked to the River City 2020 task force that I serve about that a couple of months ago. The far-right mindset that keeps things from moving forward on transportation solutions at the state level and health-care solutions at the federal level was holding Staunton back big-time in the 1980s and into the early 1990s.

Avoli and another long-time City Council member, Rita Wilson, led the paradigm shift on the politics that awakened the Queen City from its doldrums and has created a downtown that is the envy of small-town America.

And here’s the funny thing – even with the Stonewall Jackson Hotel and the Blackfriars Playhouse and the R.R. Smith Center and the award-winning parking garage and the thriving Wharf the city is still on the lookout for entities like Octagon Partners and Hampton Roads Ventures and projects like Gypsy Hill Place.

“Behind you we see a building that’s approximately 80 years old that proudly served the citizens of this city for many years. Then it became old. Then it became decrepit. Now, that happens all over America. There are buildings that were built brand-new, and they served communities for years, and then they become old and decrepit,” said Robert K. Jenkins, the president of Hampton Roads Ventures, which is providing the bulk of the money being used to get the project started in the form of $12 million in New Market Tax Credits.

“Most cities, most city officials, most mayors, don’t share the vision of the people here. They bring up a bulldozer and a great big ball, and down they go,” Jenkins said. But Staunton, Jenkins said, is a different place. “I think it is important to see what is being done here as a model that could be done in many, many other cities,” Jenkins said.

“The city of Staunton is telling America, We can save our buildings, we can breathe life into our buildings, and they can serve again,” Jenkins said.

Observers of the political goings-on in Waynesboro in recent years might remember the name Hampton Roads Ventures. The Wayne Theatre Alliance had been working with HRV in 2005 on a deal that would have led to the infusion of millions of dollars of New Market Tax Credits into the redevelopment of the historic downtown theatre before a divided Waynesboro City Council nixed the deal.

The question in Staunton isn’t whether or not to do something that is clearly worthwhile. Well, OK, outside of my conservative friend Dickie Bell, who said on the way to getting the Republican Party nomination to run for the 20th House District seat this week that the politics in Staunton has “shifted from conservatism to something that is alarming,” implying if not outright saying that the get-things-done attitude that prevails in the progressive majority on City Council, on which Bell has served for 13 years, is, well, “alarming.”

Bell, the 1 in a fair share of 6-1 votes on City Council over the years, notwithstanding, Staunton leaders by and large are the ones responsible for going out and finding people like Octagon and Hampton Roads than having to be convinced of ideas such as that the old Robert E. Lee High was worth saving.

“This is a long process,” Williamson said. “I know it seems to have taken a long time since we purchased the school, but with so many moving pieces and so many different parts to a successful development, it really has moved extremely quickly compared to things that we see in other markets,” Williamson said.

  

– Story by Chris Graham



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