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Galax visitors' center work to begin

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By April Wright, Reporter

An important part of the downtown revitalization project, the Galax visitors' center, could be complete by November or December and open by January 2010, said Keith Barker, assistant city manager.

The building, formerly John Parsons' law office, located across from the Galax Municipal Building will feature brochures and information, a WiFi hookup and a touch-screen computer for visitor information.

It is currently undergoing asbestos and mold removal for the next three weeks.

Once the city receives the final drawings, reconstruction will begin, with most work done in-house to keep the city under budget.

The city has set aside $150,000 for the project, and a few components — plumbing, electrical, HVAC and windows — will have to be contracted out.

“We think we'll do well under the budget,” Barker said. “And we'll have a nice product and something everybody can be proud of.”

Before the Parsons building came into consideration, the visitor center was initially going to be placed in a two-story house, acquired by the city for $85,000, on Oldtown Street.

But since John Parsons decided to donate the 1949-era vacant building to the city in November 2008, the city manger and director of Chestnut Creek School of the Arts have discussed transforming the property into part of the CCSA campus, which would be used to hold various classes, said City Manager Keith Holland.

However, no formal plans have been made.

The Parsons building, Barker said, was considered one of the blight problems in the city that needed to be addressed as part of the downtown revitalization. Barker contacted Parsons to discuss the benefits of the downtown revitalization project, which provides a grant to business owners wishing to beautify storefronts.

Vacant for many years, the building was built by Parsons' father, John Parsons Sr., and served as his law office.

“It meant a lot to him, and he didn't know what to do with it,” said Barker. “He wanted to find a way that the building could be used and taken care of, possibly by the city.”

That's when Barker and City Manager Keith Holland suggested it be the visitors' center — and Parsons' agreed.

“This building made more sense since it's center to a number of things — The Rex, Chestnut Creek School of the Arts, festivals and the Galax Municipal Building,” Barker said. “Hopefully, it will be open when The Rex is, to accommodate visitors.”

In addition to the state awarding Galax a Community Development Block Grant to make improvements to storefronts downtown, other money from the grant — which is funded by the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, city funds and contributions from business owners totaling $2.7 million — will to pay for the visitors' center, paving alleys and improving parking lots.

In order to receive grant funding for parts of the revitalization project, the city was required to construct a visitors' center and invest at least $120,000 in the project, with in-house man hours counted as part of the investment.

“We knew we needed a visitors' center, but we hadn't pursued it too far, until now,” said Barker. Until now, the funds had not been available to do so, but meeting the requirement allows the city to receive leveraged funds for paving parking lots and alley ways and landscaping.

“We've had a tourism director for eight years now, and with all the projects going on in the downtown area, this is the ideal time to have the visitors' center in place,” said Barker.

The two-story center will be much like others, he said, with brochures, a seating area, WiFi hookup for visitors wanting to check e-mail and a touch-screen computer that will also provide information about where to find attractions, lodging and dining.

Each floor is 1,600 square feet, with the main floor consisting of visitor information and the second floor including offices — one for the Galax Tourism Director Chuck Riedhammer, who will relocate from his office in the Galax Municipal Building.

“We'll keep everything the same look, even with the trim,” said Barker of the building's historical appeal.

Besides enhancing its appearance with new drywall, a drop ceiling with louvered lighting and a new staircase, one of the biggest aesthetic improvements will be replacing the windows with new energy efficient ones, said Barker.

“It's a great location, and a great addition for us,” said Barker. “This will be a great asset to the city when work is complete.”