Roanoke has pledged $5 million in federal pandemic relief dollars to help revitalize the long-neglected Gainsboro neighborhood with a hub devoted to healthcare and small business development.
But the city’s efforts have so far been unsuccessful.
Nearly two years after City Council earmarked American Rescue Plan Act funds for the idea, none has gone to a Gainsboro hub. Some residents are beginning to worry time is running out on spending the money, which must be under contract by December 2024. And city officials are saying the Gainsboro hub may look different than what was originally envisioned.
“The timeline has really worked against us,” Wayne Leftwich, assistant to the city manager, said last month at a neighborhood meeting about the city’s failed attempt last year to buy the dilapidated Claytor Clinic for use as a healthcare center. “It is very unlikely that we could either buy and rehab or have that building rehabbed in our timeline for the ARPA funding.”
Leftwich revealed that the city had also tried to fund restoration of the adjacent Lawson Building — which houses small businesses — but was unsuccessful.
On Monday, Leftwich briefed Council on a recently completed Gainsboro neighborhood study designed to guide future development. That concept plan — which will go before Council on July 17 for adoption — will help kickstart investments in Gainsboro.
When Roanoke received nearly $65 million in pandemic relief funds, the city formed an advisory panel of 36 citizens to decide where to put the money. Among the “transformational” ideas to emerge was a community hub in Gainsboro, a historically Black neighborhood that was devastated during urban renewal.
“The hub would consist of space for small business incubation/acceleration, entrepreneurship training, job/skills development, health clinic, etc,” the panel’s recommendation said. “The hub would stabilize the neighborhood, introduce additional activities and serve as a catalyst for further investment” in the area.
City Manager Bob Cowell updated members of City Council last month on the city’s various projects funded by the American Rescue Plan Act.
“Some of these have been hard. They’ve hit wall after wall and we keep trying to pivot,” Cowell said. “If we find ourselves in January that we still have not been able to progress on some of these initiatives, we need to think about repurposing those dollars, because we will have one year left at that point to completely use those dollars.”
Councilwoman Trish White-Boyd asked if that would include the Gainsboro hub.
“It would,” Cowell said.
While the city may be able to do components of a healthcare and business incubator hub, Cowell told The Rambler on Monday that the city may pivot more toward restoring and building housing and providing recreational amenities in the neighborhood.
“I’m confident that something like that can happen,” he said. “I’m not as confident that what we’ll see is what we had originally hoped to see.”
The Gainsboro neighborhood concept plan itself has faced pushback from some residents for its focus on a future commercial center rather than current housing conditions.
“If you're talking about redeveloping a neighborhood, it's got to be housing first,” Gayle Graves, whose mother grew up in Gainsboro, said at an April neighborhood meeting.
At a neighborhood meeting last month, about two dozen attendees expressed a desire to work more closely with city leaders to revitalize the neighborhood. Residents spoke about a need to fix run-down houses, create safer streets by slowing down traffic and providing recreational opportunities like parks or basketball courts for youth.
By a show of hands, attendees supported putting $25,000 — leftover from a grant that funded the neighborhood concept plan — toward constructing a small stage for performances at the roundabout by the Claytor Clinic and Lawson Building.
Around the same time the city tried to buy the Claytor Clinic, city officials approached the owner of the Lawson Building, Stan Hale, about helping with rehab of the building, which dates to 1953. The building is named after Reuben E. Lawson, a civil rights attorney who had his offices there and owned the land.
Antwyne Calloway, the registered agent for the company that legally owns the property, said Hale wasn’t interested in the city’s financial help and vision.
“You don’t bring a partner to the table nine months, ten months, after you all have come up with a plan,” Calloway said. “‘No, you can’t have my building in your plans because you ain’t discussed that with me.’ So I think that’s some of what actually happened.”
Talks also broke down over acquiring the Claytor Clinic property after some heirs expressed wariness over a sale to the city. City leaders said they stopped pursuing a sale because of the resistance, while Dr. Walter Claytor, a trustee of the property, maintains the city “screwed up.”
Some family members also expressed concern that city code enforcement issued a “raze or repair” order on the dilapidated clinic at the same time the city was trying to negotiate a sale. They believed the city would tear down the building if a sale did not go through.
“To me, that was almost like gunboat diplomacy,” Dr. Conrad Claytor, a nephew of Walter, said in an interview last fall.
Online city code enforcement records show that the November 2021 order — to “Return building to original condition” or “Tear building down” — was resolved in January 2022 with no apparent action. Another order about boarding the building up noted ‘DO NOT BILL OWNER PER REQUEST OF THE CITY MANAGER.”
In a meeting last year with members of the Claytor family, Cowell said the city wants to avoid the perception that it’s repeating urban renewal.
“I don't want this to be something where, you know, the government came in and did something that wasn't sought out or wasn't desirable because that's the history of the area, and that’s what we're trying to actually reconcile,” Cowell said.
Jordan Bell, who has long advocated for a Gainsboro hub, has said the city should try harder to make that happen. He suggested the city could help restore the Claytor Clinic without acquiring the property outright.
“If the city was really serious about creating that Gainsboro hub … [it would] come back and sit with the family,” Bell said in an interview last fall, referring to the Claytors. “Why isn’t the city making more of an effort to fix the problems that they created?”
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