Editorial: Salem’s $53 million question

(from The Roanoke Times May 12, 2017)

Salem is staring at a monstrous expense: It may cost $53 million or more to refurbish an aging Salem High School.

How can a city of 25,000 afford to pay a bill of that size?

The answer starts on Main Street, in downtown.

Last November, Ridenhour Music closed its store, ending a run that began when the family’s first store opened in 1945 in Roanoke. That seemed a sad note to strike and, goodness knows, Salem sure didn’t need another empty storefront.

That might have been the end of one song, but also marked the beginning of another. The property was purchased by Faisal Kahn, the same developer who has turned the old Crystal Tower building and the old Roanoke YMCA into downtown living spaces called the Ponce De Leon and Locker Room Lofts.

He plans to do the same with Ridenhour Music, just on a smaller — some might say, more Salem — scale.

Now another prominent Roanoke developer — perhaps the most prominent developer — has bought the old Peacock-Salem dry cleaners building on the edge of downtown, and is in the process of acquiring the old West Salem Body Shop in the middle of downtown. Ed Walker, famous for converting one prominent Roanoke structure after another into living space, plans to do the same with both those buildings in Salem. (The dazzling list of Walker’s Roanoke projects includes the Hotel Patrick Henry, the Colonial American Bank building, the old Grand Piano building, the Cotton Mill and the River House in Wasena.)

He’s also bought the old Valleydale Foods plant off Indiana Street and hopes to convert into . . . well, something. Ideally, he says, something that creates employment, so probably not housing. We’ll come back to that.

So what does any of this have to do with paying for renovations at Salem High School? Well, everything. Salem could either tax its residents, or the city could try to grow its economy and expand the tax base. It’s chosen the latter — always a good thing, but especially when the city is looking at a big bill coming due.

Step one is to create housing downtown and get in on the same trend that has helped revitalize downtown Roanoke. With the Walker and Khan projects and some others underway, Salem Mayor Randy Foley expects 80-100 new apartments in or near downtown. Keep in mind Salem hasn’t had any new apartments anywhere in a long time.

Whether you figure one person per unit or two, what would all those new people mean? City officials hope they mean a livelier downtown and more customers for businesses there. People spend money, and that money gets taxed. Salem has big plans: The Virginia Department of Transportation is about to spend $6 million on road improvements on Main Street. It’s set up a grant program to help downtown property owners fix up their facades, which not only helps them but makes downtown as a whole look more inviting. There also are plans for new street lights.

Nothing happens without some controversy and there is, of course, some here. Salem issued a “request for proposals” for the city-owned property where the Salem Farmers Market now operates. Basically, it asked: What could we do with this and still preserve a farmers market?

From Salem’s point of view: Downtown needs more parking. There are actually 2,019 parking spaces downtown, but they’re scattered and not necessarily functional. Foley points out how his software company might like to move downtown, but can’t if there’s not enough readily available parking for the firm’s 25 employees. Maybe Salem needs a parking garage?

Maybe that’s not all Salem needs. There’s interest in attracting a hotel to downtown to cater to people attending events at Roanoke College, especially with the opening of the Cregger Center. In downtown Roanoke, there’s now a hotel atop a parking garage. Could Salem do the same on Main and Broad, but still keep the Farmers Market there?

Some have trouble visualizing that, but Walker and partner Brent Cochran say it may be possible to come up with a creative solution. They’re looking at other projects around the country and world to see if there’s one that might work.

Or — and city officials raise this point gently — the Farmers Market has only been around since 1992. It’s not as if it’s in a historic location the way Roanoke’s is. Maybe there’s actually a better location for the Farmers Market in downtown?

Walker’s partner, Cochran, is the founder of Local Environmental Agriculture Project, which has started farmers markets. Salemites shouldn’t worry about its market being shut down, although people might want to be open-minded about where it is.

Given their track record, there seems little doubt that Walker, Cochran and Faisal can make something happen in downtown Salem. The big question is: Can Walker make something out of the rusted hulk of the Valleydale plant?

The meat-packing plant closed in 2006 and, from the outside, looks terrible. However, Walker points out, it has a clean environmental record — and lots and lots of plumbing. To him, that cries out “brewery,” especially given the valley’s recent success of late in that market niche. If you go to salembrewery.com, you’ll see that’s how he’s marketing it. At 120,000 square feet, Valleydale is about half the size of the Ballast Point brewery under construction in Botetourt County, but many orders of magnitude bigger than your typical craft brewer.

Walker likens the prospect of landing a large brewer for Valleydale as akin to “elephant hunting.” Or perhaps he could persuade several smaller ones to share space? Either way, Walker started the hunt by attending the recent Craft Brewers Conference in Washington and handing out thousands of fliers pitching the site.

He’s gotten some nibbles, but says it likely will take years to land a tenant — and invest $20 million in outfitting the site.

His background is in converting old buildings into residential and office or retail space; putting an old industrial building back into business as a new industrial building is a completely new challenge.

If you’re Salem, though, that Valleydale project is part of how you’ll pay for that high school without taxing citizens until they squeal like the pigs that were once turned into bacon there.


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