Floyd County may lay claim to “The Man Who Moved a Mountain,” but moving mountains and rerouting rivers is business as usual in Grundy, the Buchanan County seat in deep Southwestern Virginia.
And at a time when most Virginia towns try to preserve their history and heritage through renovation of landmarks, Grundy took the wrecking ball to most of its old downtown and is pinning its future on a new core built around a Walmart.
To some, it’s ironic that a dying mining town built on the back of workers exploited by the coal barons is now turning to another mega-corporation reviled worldwide for its low wages, stingy benefits and exploitation of workers.
For years, Grundy faced flood threats from the Levisa River. A 1977 flood sent most of the town’s commerce floating down the river so the area became part of a vast Army Corps of Engineers to save the region from the ravages of floods.
The Corps of Engineers never met a landscape it couldn’t alter or a river it couldn’t rechannel so — with help from then-Congressman Rick Boucher, the king of Southwestern Virginia pork barrel — the feds launched a $200-plus million plan to transform Grundy into a shopping and retail mecca.
Skeptics and retail pros wondered how a town of 1,100 people sitting in one of the poorer areas of the Old Dominion could support such a retail creation, especially one anchored by Walmart, which has a store less than 30 miles away in Claypool Hill and another just across the state line in Pikeville, KY.
But economic realities didn’t faze the Corps or Boucher. The Army’s enginners blasted away half of a scenic mountain to create a 13-acre plateau they hope is above the flood plain. The Corps blasted away 2.4 million cubic yards of mountainside for the project.
The Virginia Coalfield Economic Coalfield Authority kicked in $2 million for construction of a 500-car parking garage with retail storfronts and space for a box store on top of the facility.
Boucher claimed the new “retail center” would “retain and create 1,000 direct and 1,000 indirect jobs.” Retail experts say the size of the proposed Walmart and the handful of smaller stores in the complex will create — at best — about 200 low-paying retail jobs.
The Virginia Department of Transportation bought Grundy’s historic Lywood Theater and several other 30s-era buildings damaged by the 1077 flood and sent in the wrecking ball. VDOT dynamited another section of mountain to build a new intersection and road joining a widened U.S. 460.
A floodwall now protects the remaining sections of the old downtown Grundy — anchored by the Buchanan County Courthouse. A movie theater sits atop another parking garage just west of the old downtown.
Developers predicted the business lost when VDOT razed the old downtown would move to the “new downtown” with the Walmart. Everything was expected to open by 2007.
Didn’t work out that way. In May 2007, Nick Miroff of The Washington Post wrote:
With loads of dynamite and government dollars, the leaders of this struggling coal town in southwest Virginia set to work years ago on a bold project to engineer their way out of poverty and the flood path of the Levisa Fork River.
The “New Grundy” of planners’ sketches was an Appalachian version of an upscale urban village, with distinctive shops, apartments and high-tech businesses that would spark an economic revival of the town.
This grand vision didn’t fit in the canyon-like confines of the old Grundy (population 1,100). So with a miner’s disdain for the incommodities of geology, town leaders recruited the Army Corps of Engineers and the Virginia Department of Transportation. They demolished dozens of buildings along Main Street and, to make room for the new town, blasted away a mountainside.
The $196 million project — costing more than $175,000 for every man, woman and child in Grundy — was scheduled to deliver the new town this year.
But it hasn’t worked out that way. Many owners of the razed businesses pocketed their government payouts and don’t plan to reopen. The original goal of a revived small-town community morphed into something quite different — a future now heralded by an empty lot with a solitary blue sign sticking up from the barren expanse.
On Sept. 14 — four years late — the new Walmart “supercenter” opens in Grundy but several of the storefronts that spread out from the entrance to the big box giant remain empty. The businesses lost to flooding and VDOT’s wrecking ball won’t be part of the new downtown.
“You trade your town for a Walmart, and you don’t feel likes it’s a good trade-off,” Grundy High School teacher Debbie Raines told the Post.
Construction worker Lyle Agee came to Grundy five years ago hoping the highly-hyped project would provide work. He found a few minimum wage, short-term jobs but nothing permanent. He and his family are packing to leave and won’t be in Grundy when the new Walmart opens.
Many in the town speak with disdain about Chuck Crabtree, the former town manager and head of Grundy’s Industrial Development Authority who spent nearly 20 years championing the project.
Crabtree promoted Walmart as a modern-day “general store” that would provide a center for the manufactured downtown.
Others don’t see it that way.
“We just old country folks,” 75-year-old Grundy native Lee Keen told the Post. “We had a neat little town here.”
I spent time in Grundy recently on assignment for a news agency. My interviews can’t be published here yet because the people who hired me paid for first dibs on that. The photos here are ones that weren’t submitted for publication.