Eight graduate students from Urban Affairs and Planning and the School of Public and International Affairs spent time this spring examining potential methods for the redevelopment of the Vaughan Furniture Building in Downtown Galax, VA.

Galax served as one of several manufacturing centers in Southwest Virginia. Established in 1919, the Vaughan furniture company was one of a number of large textile and furniture manufacturers in Galax. Competition from foreign markets and other macroeconomic forces have reduced the stake of manufacturing in the city and the Vaughan Furniture Company closed its doors in 2004. Currently, only one of the city’s previous five furniture factories remains.

The result of these changes has been a 32% (2,910 job) loss in employment in Galax and reduced access to livable-wage paying jobs for city residents. Economic data shows that families and young professionals are leaving the region for better opportunities elsewhere. Population decline, paired with further impacts from the Great Recession, presented the city with a number of revenue-based challenges, especially for its downtown businesses and longstanding establishments, who benefited from workers and their families frequenting their establishments.

David Vaughan knew he wanted his family’s building to do something positive for the community. “Many families were affected by the closing of the factory and we knew that this building had a legacy in the community. We knew we couldn’t redevelop it ourselves, so we reached out to the local government for help.”

City Manager Keith Barker contacted the Virginia Tech Office of Economic Development for assistance on possible ways to redevelop the Vaughan Furniture Building and revitalize the Town of Galax. The Office of Economic Development, part of Outreach and International Affairs, holds an economic development studio class for graduate level students each spring to facilitate out of the classroom learning. With a comprehensive inventory of successful redevelopments, the team suggested several redevelopment options for the Vaughan building that would complement the city’s ongoing revitalization efforts.

Through analysis of data, a series of interviews, and surveys of the community, the students redesigned the building into a three-phase work/live/play hub to bring energy into Downtown Galax. Team members created a plan to redevelop the Vaughan Furniture Building into a multi-phased project, offering retail, commercial, and housing space, as well as an indoor event space. The team went a step farther in recommending specific uses for these spaces, including a bike shop to complement the nearby New River Trailhead State Park, a business incubator to further spur small business development in Galax, and the potential for senior housing for Galax’s growing retirement-age population.

The studio class presented their proposal to an audience of local business owners, town officials, and members of the public in early May. Students emphasized the need for mixed investments from private and public sources and partnerships with organizations and colleges to find funding opportunities.

Many towns and cities in the United States have a vacant or declining industrial site within their borders. Redeveloping these former industrial sites into housing, retail, dining, etc. presents communities with a unique opportunity to rehabilitate manufacturing spaces into vibrant and productive uses. Additionally, redevelopments can contribute to positive economic activity and provide new pathways for sustainable employment and revenue creation. These sorts of redevelopments are not without their challenges, however. For instance, the size, features, and layout of industrial spaces can pose challenges to developers. However, it can be difficult to generate the necessary capital to begin the redevelopment process without grant funding or private investment.

Mayor CM Mitchell attended the presentation and thanked the students for their work. “There is a lot of interest in Galax to see something happen with this building. I believe their proposal will be well received by the community and I look forward to seeing what we as a town can do with this.”

Written By Jennifer Morgan