To understand what can happen to a community when the economic base packs up and leaves town, one only has to tour the once-thriving South Side of Virginia where the furniture industry and textile mills dusted off their passports and hit the road for foreign shores.
I headed Southeast on my motorcycle Wednesday for a tour of the South Side. It wasn’t pretty.
Bassett, once home to huge furniture factories, looks like a bombed out European city from World War II. Travel U.S. 57 through the heart of the town and you see empty stores and people with vacant stares sitting on porches. The same is true in Martinsville where empty storefronts line Main Street in downtown while banners fly from lightpoles proclaiming the community a "city without limits."
Head East on U.S. 58 and you come to Danville, where the city’s signature Dan River Mills started shifting most of its jobs overseas years ago and imploded the signature Dye House along the river last November. Danville’s economic base is more diverse than Martinsville or Bassett but the city is still trying to rebuild the economic vitality that once defined the area.
From Danville I headed North on U.S. 29 and then East on Virginia 40 at Gretna to the South End of Smith Mountain Lake, where huge homes stand empty from foreclosures and the housing market crash. More than one commercial development sits empty or unfinished as a monument to bad planning.
I was happy to come home to Floyd, where optimism remains high and only one empty storefront is found on Main Street. The textile industry also once fueled Floyd’s economy but the buildings that once housed the factories are not empty shells. They house small businesses today. Floyd’s last remaining new car dealership, Harvey Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep, was not on the list of 879 dealers that the ailing auto company will close. The town’s only furniture and appliance store announced its closing last year..
A trip through Virginia’s South Side reminds one that our economy is fragile and the future is never certain.