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Alexis Thompson, economic development director for the Town of Ash-land Photo by Jay Paul
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Hugh Joyce, an Ashland native and business owner, established Gallery Flux two years ago, hoping to spur more local interest in fine arts and draw visitors beyond Route 54 and U.S. 1. Photo by Jay Paul
It was a glamorous nighttime scene probably never before witnessed on this otherwise unremarkable stretch of Route 54 in Ashland.
As a trio of white spotlights played hopscotch across the bellies of a blanket of gray autumn clouds, bulky security attendants in tight black T-shirts directed elegantly dressed guests into a former hardware store — now a gallery space.
The November 2011 debut of Gallery Flux — an ultramodern SoHo-style art gallery — marked a milestone for the Center of the Universe. It was to the gallery's proud owner, Hugh Joyce, a moment worth a little bit of fanfare.
Inside, a crowd of a 100-plus, men in suits and women in gowns, nibbled cheese and sipped wine as they mingled and talked amid sculptures and paintings that would not have looked at all out of place at a First Friday Art Walk opening in downtown Richmond. Remarkably — and for Joyce, who's perhaps one of Ashland's biggest boosters, fittingly — this very first show exhibited only art produced by Hanover County Public Schools high school students.
"What my goal was if I opened this business was I was hoping other people would follow," says Joyce, sitting on one of Gallery Flux's two low-slung, leather-and-chrome sofas. "The cool thing is that has happened. I love Ashland."
It's two years later and, perhaps against the odds, the gallery is still here. Its walls filled with pieces from well-known regional artists, Flux is fast making a name for itself. Joyce looks incongruously intense, interrupting the dreamy low murmuring crawl of a Europop bass line to talk about his love of the town where he grew up, his two artist sisters and his own need to create in spite of a self-professed lack of artistic talent.
"I love art — always loved art," says Joyce, focused on a future when this small-town street crawls with art lovers and shoppers visiting boutique shops not unlike Carytown or Charlottesville's mall. "The galleries work when they're in a cluster. I like to have bandwidth."
That day has not yet arrived, but Ashland by all accounts is entering a period of comparative renaissance. Joyce leads the movement, seeking to redefine Ashland as a place for art lovers, but he's not the first — and certainly not the only — to invest in the idea that the Center of the Universe is something more than an ironic and glib slogan.
This current revival began in earnest in 2009, when another Hanover native and lover of the town, Yancey Jones, bought the Henry Clay Shopping Center, a strip mall that for decades before proudly bore the town's official "Center of the Universe" slogan, even as it became tattered around the edges.
Jones, co-owner of the family's Supply Room Co. business, is an entrepreneur who saw an opportunity, but he said at the time that his main goal was to give the shopping center a modern facelift. He changed the facade to a faux Mediterranean look, restoring a measure of pride to what, at the time, Jones noted, was "the first thing you see when you come into the town of Ashland."
Since that first effort — followed by Joyce and then by various other small businesses targeting either the arts or eco-friendly markets — more have followed. Adding to the businesses like the toy train store and the various upscale women's consignment shops, other businesses have fanned out along Route 54 from the revamped Henry Clay Shopping Center to the west.
An art gallery, re.funk.it, specializes in "found object" art, the Home Energy Store sells both folk art pieces and "green" products for home renovations and energy conservation, and Thrill of the Hunt is an "up-cycled furniture" store also blending the arts with adaptive reuse.
Even the car repair shop in town, Mac's Service Center offers an updated twist. The shop is nationally ranked for its work, but with a focus on customer experience, it's a destination for customers all over the Mid-Atlantic. Parked in front on proud display is a Chevy Volt hybrid car emblematic of the future-focused aspect — a potential economic high-efficiency motor — to the town's reinvention.
"We have that very rare blend of hometown nostalgia, with the arts and technology," says Alexis Thompson, the town's economic development director, who came on the job just two years ago and found enthusiasm for change among some of the town's businesses.
Though Joyce and other business owners are the ideas and the investors behind what's happening in Ashland, Thompson has become the face of facilitation. Many of the business owners in town credit Thompson — a 30-something dynamo who talks as if all of her visitors are prospective buyers — with making the hard work of reinvention a lot less about pushing against bureaucratic barriers.
The job of Ashland's economic development director was for years, in the eyes of many business owners, a title sort of like undertaker or exterminator: Necessary, but not welcome. The position tended to be inhabited by people with talent for bureaucratic nuance and little patience for some of the creative business efforts that came and went, say business owners. Back in 1997, Medley Grove, an innovative co-op, tried to re-purpose a long-blighted 1920s gas station as a catering business and gourmet lunch counter. The business eventually succumbed to an overabundance of red tape. Dana Wood, a longtime Ashland businessman, says his own experience running a tobacco shop in town in the late 1990s was abysmal. A graduate of Randolph-Macon College in 1976, he'd invested himself in the town only to find no interest from the town in reinvesting in him. "When I left, I swore I'd never do another business in Ashland. Everything you tried to do, it was ‘that's against the rules here'," says Wood. Thompson demurs when she's told how frustrated business owners say they were before she arrived: "I think there was room for improvement," she says, admitting that when she first arrived and would visit businesses, "I was shown the door a couple of times." A native of Bon Air, Thompson arrived after a stint in Harrisonburg, a town that conquered many of the same issues facing Ashland's faded downtown. In a job similar to her current position, she helped develop strategies that attacked those problems aggressively by streamlining processes and by working with prospective business owners to craft their ideas into realities that fit the town's business and zoning ordinances. Thompson says she also puts a premium on cooperation between businesses, recently unveiling such seemingly simple fixes as a new buy-Ashland gift certificates aimed at keeping local dollars locally spent. She even monitors town businesses' social media interactions to identify common troubles, then hosts clinics aimed at helping work out the kinks. "When you put a little paint and a little work into something, then you've got something really special again," says Wood, who's now back in town, convinced in part by both Joyce and Thompson that times had changed for the town. "Alexis is just so proactive and trying to reach out and grow the businesses here." Thompson says she doesn't break zoning rules, and few of them have changed. Instead, she tries to make certain everyone knows what rules they're playing by before they start kicking the ball. "Ideally, we can figure out any hitches before it becomes a costly mistake," Thompson says. "I'm not greasing any wheels. It goes back to enhancing the communication channels. Every town has regulations, but if you can have conversations ..." Those conversations are key, not just with town officials, she says, referring back to a time not long ago when many local businesses tended to be insular. Now, she says, "community collaboration in Ashland is like nothing I've ever seen," and with that, "development, whether it's in a downtown district … it's a domino effect. We're hoping to see that domino effect here continue." Joyce doesn't see a game of dominoes. He sees an uphill battle against blight — and he defends Gallery Flux like a fortress from which he's making his stand against the blight that had begun to overcome Ashland over the previous decade or so. "I have always loved this building," he says throwing his arms wide as if to touch the walls in Flux's cleanly remodeled and cavernous interior. He poured both love and nearly a half-million dollars into purchasing and renovating the building.
In the expansive imagination of Joyce, familiar to Richmonders as the bow-tie-bedecked owner of James River Air Conditioning Co. who grins from the side of the company's many service vans, Ashland's future is a confluence of the fine arts and eco-mindedness. And while he's far from the biggest property owner in town, Joyce is willing to put his money where his imagination goes. "When you look at Ashland or any of these small towns — Staunton, Harrisonburg — you used to have this vibrant inner core," he says, recounting the familiar saga of small-town America gobbled up by big-box consumerism that so often leaves those town centers vacant and boarded up. "So how do you compete? My answer is you don't with Walmart and Roses and Trak Auto." Which is what Joyce says led him to ask and then try to answer the question: "So what kind of business can we get back into these older buildings that make sense?" In addition to Gallery Flux, Joyce also owns a number of other buildings along Route 54 leading toward the town's famous main street, Railroad Avenue. And taking a page from Richmond's innovative Vacant Spaces Artful Places efforts of the early 2000s, he dressed them up. Into one of his other properties, he recruited the Home Energy Store, a green-energy solutions shop. In the other, he placed a slightly rebranded version of his own heating and air company, spotlighting his interest in renewable energy and solar power. "I would really, really like to see one or two more art type businesses up and running, and then Ashland becomes a real destination operation again," he says. "We're trying to get other people interested." In front of Gallery Flux, it's common to see one of Joyce's two electric vehicles. He was among the area's first Volt owners, and more recently he purchased a Tesla Motors Model S, a four-door all-electric vehicle. But for all the window dressing and flashy technology rolling around the area, there remain two nagging problems. The first may be the best kind of problem a town could hope for. The Ashland Theatre may well be among the most distinctive buildings in the region, a movie palace built during the golden era of Hollywood. Its sleek art deco lines and glowing neon pin striping dress up Ashland far more than a strip mall face-lift ever could. The 300-seat theater is significant enough that Preservation Virginia recently named it among the top endangered historic buildings in the state. "Certainly that block that contains the Ashland Theatre is critical to downtown Ashland, there's no question about it," says Ragan Phillips, a semi-retired business executive and Ashland resident for the past 12 years — his wife is Phyllis Theroux, the well-known area author. "If that block, for example, could be developed into a theater and a cafe and an art gallery, you'd have a marvelous section to introduce people to Ashland." The theater has been long closed. And it's not alone: On the same block where it sits as a monument to unrealized potential, the theater is bordered to its west by a hulking shell of a former car dealership. Over the years, it's done various turns as a thrift shop, but most recently, it's been haphazardly boarded up and left to molder.
About a decade ago, it looked like the town was on the edge of an earlier renaissance, when an area businessman, A.D. Whittaker, purchased the theater. He sank more money than he's willing to admit to into the renovations and then he waited for the market to follow his lead — and waited. Until 2007, when Phillips led an effort to reclaim the theater as a nonprofit community resource that would host second-run films, plays and community events. His group briefly worked out an agreement to sublease the property from another charity that'd been using it for the same purpose. Eventually the other charity lost its lease on the building owned by Whittaker. "We did really well," says Phillips of nights when ticket sales packed the house. But the next spring, roof leaks and a lease disagreement ended the affair. Phillips organized an effort to buy the theater: "That offer was not considered substantial enough by the owner to accept. Things died out after that point, quite frankly." Joyce says it's more than just a simple missed opportunity. "It's our greatest challenge — and [Gallery] Flux ultimately does not work if we don't have that theater vibrant and operating," he says. He estimates buying it would cost in the neighborhood of $1.5 million, to say nothing of operating it. "Someone has got to come in and fall in love with it," he says. But "in a perfect world, you'd do it like the Byrd [Theatre]. Every time I look at the Hippodrome, I close my eyes and say, ‘Can you imagine?' You have to have a developer like Ron [Stallings] and a private entity." Phillips agrees. "The Ashland Theatre — how best to describe that?" he says. "It would be such a bright light for the town. At the moment, that's the best way I can think about it. It would just cheer everyone up if those big neon lights were back on a couple of nights a week. It would just bring life back to downtown. I wish I had a million dollars." The second problem facing the town is more a matter of placement than of potential. As Interstate 95 supplanted U.S. Route 1 way back in the 1970s as the main conveyor of East Coast traffic, Ashland's lazy "Mayberry" appeal lost luster. The town's core is set back more than a mile from Exit 92, where a steady stream of cars exit to fuel and to hit Cracker Barrel and McDonald's. Few travelers make their way beyond the U.S. 1 and Route 54 intersection to explore downtown Ashland. A recent designation as a Virginia Main Street community by Gov. Bob McDonnell could mean a boon for businesses and for the town itself when it comes to applying for state and federal grant programs. But any such designation is just the beginning of the hard work. "I think it's going to be a phased process," says Thompson, who says she's "seen increasing interest in all vacant spaces in downtown." That includes the theater, she says, as well as the properties around it. So much so that plans are already underway to redevelop the blighted former consignment store as an antique shop. Economic numbers for the town do, in fact, suggest an upswing in activity. Business tax revenue for the town increased slightly more than 10 percent from the 2012 fiscal year through the first 11 months of the 2013 fiscal year. Whittaker says he's still waiting to see the renaissance materialize. "You know, we support all of the efforts to help revitalize the area," says Whittaker, an Ashland resident for 35 years. But, he says, he doesn't see the interest from the community. "We'd be glad to participate in anything that's going to help the downtown there. I tried for a long, long time with the theater, and I couldn't get anything to work," Whittaker says. "Up to this point, we haven't had any success — obviously." Luckily, not everyone is ready to bet the farm on the Ashland Theatre as the only answer. Dana Wood at the nearby Thrill of the Hunt says he firmly believes the answer lies in attracting a new breed of retailers and merchants to invest in the town. "I think collectively there's a few businesses between here and the railroad tracks that need to happen," says Wood, who believes the more retail starts reoccupying some of the spaces along Route 54 currently inhabited by office and service businesses, the better. His shop is among the first businesses that all those would-be visitors would see if they venture to the other side of U.S. 1, somehow lured past the cookie-cutter clutter of fast-food chains and big-box retail. Before any future marketing efforts can gain credibility, Wood says, more small retail and creative business entrepreneurs will need to take a chance on Ashland. "What kind of hurts us in this little area is you've got retail and a bank and a print shop and a real estate agent instead of retail, retail, retail," says Wood, who's involved in the nonprofit business organization Market Ashland Partnership. An association of more than 150 members, the partnership is currently working to raise the town's profile by highlighting its location off Exit 92 from Interstate 95. The "92 Reasons to Shop Ashland" marketing campaign, which may soon come to a billboard near you, waits only for its creators to come up with a couple dozen more reasons to make Ashland more than a pit stop. But in lieu of that billboard going up, there remains Joyce, the rosy-cheeked cheerleader with his moussed-up hair, buttoned-up pressed shirts and trademark bowties — the perpetual booster trying to whip up enthusiasm for what Ashland could be by giving them a glimpse of uptown glamour. "We're trying to get a group of businesses to do a regular First Thursday event," he says, envisioning an art walk like the one in Richmond's Broad Street Arts District that attracts thousands every month. "I'm a marketing guy, and I want to get people excited. I would really, really like to see one or two more art-type businesses up and running again. Then Ashland becomes a real destination operation again."