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Grant Would Transform Downtown Fries

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By Ben Bomberger, Reporter

FRIES — It may have cost two members of Fries Town Council a spot on the governing body, but a grant application to be filed later this month could transform downtown Fries.

Council met during a special called meeting Tuesday night to hold a public hearing on the application to the Department of Housing and Community Development.

Craig Wilson of K.W. Poore & Associates, Inc. was on hand to explain what the grant application would entail.

The idea is to apply for $1 million to update and renovate various buildings in the downtown district.

Wilson provided two documents for council to consider — one of which showed the “after” picture and another that showed the current condition of various buildings.

Two members of town council resigned, as required by federal law, because they stood to benefit from the grant. The money could have been used to renovate their buildings, and they are not allowed to make decisions about the grant if that is the case.

Fire Hall

The project focuses on the recently acquired funding to move the volunteer fire department out of its existing building.

Once that building is vacant, the grant money would pay for renovating the old fire house and turning it into what is being called the Fries Entrepreneurial Center. The fire department's bingo hall and garage would also become part of this center.

Wilson explained that the idea is to renovate the building to house retail in the left and right bays, while using the middle bays for a common area where meetings can be held and such.

The retail spaces could include restaurants and/or outdoor recreational and tourist attractions to help build the cultural assets of the town.

Wilson added that the bay doors would be replaced with glass doors that could open up and allow the river to be seen.

The Bingo Hall will become a part of the center, as well, and could house a business, too.

The Blue Ridge Crossroads Economic Development Authority will become owners of the entrepreneurial center and will help the town lease the sections out to potential business owners.

Wilson explained that the lease rates will be "very reasonable" to help attract businesses and may only be high enough to cover costs of operating the square footage.

From there, the lease would increase by 10 percent each year and, by year five, it would be leased at market rate.

Town Square

Just outside of the entrepreneurial center would be a new town square housing the town's farmers' market and stage.

Wilson explained that the parking in front of the fire department would become a grassy area to host town events.

This part is still subject to change, as Wilson explained it would involve buying the end portion of the old company store building and demolishing it.

This section used to house a restaurant, but was closed following a propane explosion in December 2007.

The building has remained vacant since the restaurant closed and due to the substantial work that would be required, Wilson said it would be cheaper to purchase it and simply demolish the building.

Where the building stands today would be what developers have labeled a “loafers' bench park,” stairs and ramps to the entrepreneurial center and a stage.

The stage would fill the corner of the town square and allow for musical events or town festivals to be held there.

Revolving Loan Program

Also involved in the $1 million grant application is the formation of a revolving loan program.

Wilson said $300,000 would be set aside to loan out to prospective business owners at a 3 percent interest rate.

While some interest rates in the market may be lower than 3 percent, Wilson explained that this program would provide easy terms to help get the businesses up and going.

The money would be available for any business in the downtown project area.

"The idea is to create a new interest and some activity in downtown," Wilson explained.

Needs Assessment

Looking at the buildings that need some work, various shades of red, orange, yellow and even black colored in the downtown buildings.

Black is defined as a building that is "dilapidated" and requires substantial rehabilitation or reconstruction. The only black on the map is the explosion-damaged building where the restaurant used to be, while all four other sections of the old company store building are red.

Red is defined as having major deficiencies warranting substantial rehabilitation.

Also in the red are a building behind the old company store and the volunteer fire department's garage.

Big Daddy's restaurant is colored orange, meaning the building has minor deficiencies, including minor defects beyond regular maintenance.

Several other buildings are colored yellow, which indicates they are sound and have no or only slight deficiencies.

Facade Improvement

Also included in the grant application is money for existing business owners to fix up their own property with grant money.

Wilson explained that anyone within the downtown project area would be eligible for storefront facade improvements and each could receive up to $15,000.

Obviously, more focus and money would be provided for businesses in the "red" as they require more needs, but Wilson said all businesses would have the opportunity to receive some money for improvements.

Resolution

After hearing the presentation from Wilson, council was presented with a resolution to apply for the grant funding.

Wilson explained that, while various other projects — such as the train depot/visitors center, New River Trail extension and fire department relocation — are not involved in this grant application, they are being used as leverage to obtain the money.

The resolution explains that the town has already secured VDHCD CDBG-Recovery funding of $1 million, Appalachian Regional Commission funding of $193,141 and Virginia Tobacco Commission funding of $193,141 for building the new fire hall.

Additionally, the town has secured funding from the Virginia Department of Transportation in the amount of $852,355 for recreating the Fries train depot and $180,000 for an extension of the New River Trail.

Also, the town has secured Mount Rogers Planning District Commission Southwest Virginia Regional Water/Wastewater Construction funding of $74,450 and Virginia Department of Environmental Quality Water Facilities Revolving Loan funding of $180,410 for engineering and the replacement of the sanitary sewer system interceptor that serves downtown Fries.

Fries also plans to apply for USDA Rural Development money up to $99,000 to construct the farmers' market — bringing the total projected cost to more than $2.9 million.

In other words, Wilson said, the town is showing there are a lot of monies going into the town to make this project a success.

The resolution then explains the market study, marketing plan, economic restructuring plan and physical improvement plans that have been completed for downtown, the old Washington Mills site and riverfront property.

According to the resolution, a majority of the buildings (51.1 percent, by square footage) in the project area have intermediate or major deficiencies or are in need of clearance due to dilapidated conditions.

Also, 62.5 percent of the buildings in the project area are vacant or will be vacant upon relocation of the fire department.

With no further comments, Vice Mayor Gary Sumner motioned to approve the resolution. It was seconded by Council Member Carolyn Jones and passed unanimously.

Davis resigns to avoid conflict

FRIES — A 17-year representative on Fries' town council resigned Tuesday night as the town moves forward with a grant application that could potentially improve his property.

Bill Davis, first elected to council in 1993, owns the building that houses the restaurant Big Daddy's.

Earlier this month, former mayor Marie Isom resigned because a building partly owned by her husband is also included in the grant application.

Town Manager Brian Reed explained that neither Davis nor Isom could be part of the governing body that makes decisions based on grant funding that could put money in their pockets.

In other words, until all grant money has "changed hands" so to speak, neither can participate in the votes.

Reed warned council earlier this month that Davis could be required to resign to avoid a conflict of interest, just as Isom had to do, but had hoped he would be exempt since the money would go into his building and not directly into his pocket — as may be the case if the town buys Isom's husband's building.

Davis' resignation was once again met with discomfort, as other council members worried they were losing valuable assets to the council for the sake of one project.

Vice Mayor Gary Sumner said, "that'll be the second leader we have lost in our town. How many leaders do you have in Fries? They are gonna shut us down to build a building?"

Davis, like Isom, pleaded with the board to consider the positive long-term effect a project of this magnitude could have for the town and said it would be in the best interest of all Fries residents that he resign and allow the project to move forward.

Reed explained that, although the town is small and it is sometimes hard to fill council seats, the requirement is a federal law that can't be overlooked.

The only way Davis could remain on the board is if he agreed to not apply for any grant money to fix up his building.

Mayor Nancy Hawks said she understood why Davis would want to apply for the money and would do the same if it were a business she owned.

Reed added that he is attempting to get verification on how long the two have to be off council.

He said it may just be while all decisions are being made and money is changing hands.

Once the money is in place and contracts are awarded, either of them may be able to come back onto council. Until he finds out for sure, both will need to not be part of the governing body.

"This makes absolutely no sense," said Sumner.