A tale of two communities along the New River Trail

Fries bills itself as the town at the start of the New River Trail but the Commonwealth of Virginia’s web site for Virginia State Parks considers 5.5 mile stretch that runs from Fries a “branch” of the main trail that it says runs 51.5 miles from Galax to Pulaski.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons why Galax’s downtown is health and booming — even in these tough economic times — and Fries — like so many downtowns throughout the area — is a shell of its former self.

I rode through Fries the other day and found the town a far cry from the bustling community I remembered from my youth. The short stretch of buildings that comprises the communities “downtown” is marked by empty storefronts and one space with a sign that declares the building “uninhabitable.”  The Post Office and a BB&T bank branch were open but the barber shop and a salon were closed. The scene bears little resemblance to the out-dated photo of downtown that appears on the Fries web site.

The town’s web site lists just two places for shopping: A Dollar General on the edge of town and the Back Porch Gallery on Main Street but that shop’s space sits empty and a faded architect’s drawing is taped to the dirty windows.

The Chestnut Creek School of the Arts in Galax

Travel 5.5 miles down the road and you find Galax, the town that straddles the Carroll and Grayson County lines and a community with a bustling downtown and an international reputation from the annual Old Fiddler’s Convention.

There’s a sense of life and excitement in downtown Galax, something you don’t find in many central business districts these days.

I stopped in at the Chestnut Creek School of the Arts in Galax, a thriving arts school run by Chris Shackleford, the former educational director at the Jacksonville Center in Floyd.

Chris gave me a tour and discussed the current program musical program where the school provided students from nearby school with instruments and instruction.

A glance at the calendar shows a schedule crammed with events and programs.

Chris is the founding director of the Chestnut Creek School, which serves as a focal point in downtown and her success there is a testament to what can happen with community and government support and a board that allows a creative talent the freedom to do her job.

Meanwhile, the Jacksonville Center in Floyd continues to struggle, narrowly avoiding financial ruin as it meanders from grant to grant without a clear vision for the future or consistent support from the community or local government.

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2 thoughts on “A tale of two communities along the New River Trail”

  1. As a hometown Fries boy, and former Galax city engineer, I also am puzzled by the state’s website designation. Maybe they should change the official name of the trail to Chestnut Creek Trail, since none
    of the Galax spur lies along the New River. I’m not sure as to the history, but if was my belief that Colonel Fries built the system.

  2. Interesting article, Doug. Fries had a thriving textile industry at one time – I suspect when the mill closed, that was the cause of the town’s decline. It was pretty much a “company town”, from what I was able to find out.

    I did a bit of comparing Floyd and Carroll counties and other than population, there isn’t a lot of difference in the demographics. Floyd had about 14,000 people in 2000, while Carroll had about 30,000. The property tax rate is a bit higher in Carroll County – .595 per $100, compared to Floyd, which is .47 per $100. I don’t know how much more revenue Carroll County receives on an annual basis than Floyd does, but I suspect the difference is substantial and that is something to look at. The key to taxes is not the rate; instead it is how the money is spent. Without community involvement or strong leadership, tax revenue can easily be wasted. Your series on the data center last year proves that point. I do believe that the millage rate in Floyd county is going to go up next year – .47 is almost certainly too low. Sure, people will scream, but at a certain point, government services start to suffer (Sheriff Zeman and the teachers are pleading for relief, for example and the food stamp program is suffering), so it becomes a question of balance. I view government as a necessary evil and I think many Floydians share that view. But that doesn’t mean that government should be starved to death and your comparison of Chestnut Creek and Jacksonville Center proves that. I certainly don’t have any answers, but it is telling that Chris Shackelford is a city employee and John McEnhill is not. John does a wonderful job with the resources that he has available and I strongly support Jacksonville Center. I hope others continue to do so.

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