Christiansburg makes a splash with its new aquatic center

Hello, I’m Courtney Holland. Welcome to Save Our Towns, a series designed to guide and inspire those who are working hard in Appalachia to build strong communities. The episodes, created by Outreach and International Affairs of Virginia Tech, aim to celebrate what is great about small towns and also connect you with experts, resources, and more. In this episode, you’ll learn that things are going swimmingly in Christiansburg, then it’s back to Marion, Virginia, for an update, followed by Small Town Big Number and your expert tip. As always, we close with three questions for a mayor. First, your Example of Awesome story. In Christiansburg, Melissa McKeown reports that some doubted whether revenues would keep up with expenses, but it turns out the aquatic center is making quite the splash. Next door to the university town of Blacksburg, Christiansburg has worked to carve out its own identity to strengthen its claim as a recreation leader in Southwest Virginia. The town opened the Christiansburg Aquatic Center in 2010. Three pools, including an Olympic-sized competition pool, inside 64,000 square feet allow the town to host regional and state swim meets. There’s also a world-class diving tower. For $250,000 a year, Virginia Tech, the center’s primary revenue producer, leases the space to serve as the home facility for the Hokies swimming and diving teams. The city of Radford and Radford University also pay to provide access for their own residents and students. Despite these partnerships, there was some debate around town, even among council members, whether the facility was worth its $18 million price tag. Critics argued that revenues for the aquatic center, which amounts to almost a million dollars yearly, would never keep pace with its $2 million budget, creating a burden on taxpayers. Meanwhile, proponents, including the former and current mayors, said that the indirect revenue generated by the aquatic center for things like lodging and meals make it all worthwhile. Their arguments were backed up by a 2014 Virginia Tech study, conducted by students at the Kohl Center, estimating the aquatic center’s regional economic impact at more than $7 million. Swim meets — more than 30 a year — draw the most visitors. Many are multi-day events bringing hundreds of athletes and their families to the area. According to Christiansburg Director of Aquatics Terry Caldwell, swimmers from 12 states competed at the center last year. The economic impact from swim meets and pool rentals during that time amounted to over $4.5 million. One of the biggest events was last December. We had a swim meet with 1,300 athletes. The economic impact of that swim meet alone was over a million dollars. Supporters acknowledged that money is not the only indicator of the center’s success. The impact to the community is not only the meals and lodging tax revenue that they exhibit for our town but also the swimming as a sport. The center itself is a place to become healthy. Now we turn to Marion, Virginia, the town we’re following for a year. You’ll hear why the chief of economic development, Ken Heath, is so passionate about the town’s pop-up boot camp for small businesses. Pop-up Marion is a business boot camp designed to give the town an economic boost as aspiring entrepreneurs compete for start-up funding. The program’s impact was immediate when it was implemented in 2013. Dropping the downtown vacancy rate to 4 percent, the numbers coming out of Pop-up Marion are staggering. Ten buildings have been sold out of the program, 22 storefronts have been filled, 28 new businesses, somewhere in the neighborhood of 120 new jobs have been created here in this community of 6,000 people. Many of the businesses that now line Main Street are former Pop Up Marion winners, including Wolf’s BBQ, Sister’s Cafe and Gifts, and Hester’s Country Store and Fudgery. But even businesses that haven’t gone through the program are benefitting from the town’s support. The town set up a revolving small-business loan pool through the USDA, while relationships with Virginia Community Capital and other local banks provide more options. Local entrepreneurs also receive marketing support and a relationship with the town that lasts beyond the opening of their new business. We don’t want to be like some of the programs we’ve seen that gives money a big check of $20,000 at the end of the competition and say here you go, go at it, because those tend to have the same failure rate as entrepreneurs do across America anyway. About 80 percent fail within the first two years. We’ve turned it around. About 80 percent of our businesses are still, actually more than 80 percent, are still succeeding after two years. Marion officials are convinced their approach to supporting local businesses is critical to the town’s success and others agree. After the U.S. Small Business Administration tapped Marion its small-business community of the year in 2013, a town in Illinois looked to Marion for advice on how to revitalize its own community. Heath notes that investing in business is investing in the community itself. I tell people, we as the town of Marion, we don’t have money. What we do is we take tax dollars and reinvest those and when you see it through that prism on how we can get the most return on the dollars we invest, that’s what we do best. So now as opposed to well, we give $50,000 to the Lincoln. No. We reinvest 50 into the Lincoln and this is return on it gets: lodging, meals taxes, the community vitality, all the things that the Lincoln does for us. The focus remains on the local businesses that have driven the town’s development. So many great things have happened, and I truly believe it all started back when we started taking care of the heart of the community. When we started concentrating on downtown and realizing that if you’re downtown is vacant, boarded up, it’s not a place people want to come. Next, Ann Brown is back with Small Town Big Number. Billions of dollars roll into small towns from the USDA. Is your town getting its share? Today, our number is huge. Half a billion dollars. To put it into perspective, that’s the amount of money Samsung was ordered to pay Apple for copying the iPhone design and that Australia had to pledge to restore and protect the ailing Great Barrier Reef. That’s also about what it took to make the movie Spider-Man 3 and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Now that you’re thinking big, consider that a half a billion dollars is also the increase from 2016 to 2017 in the amount of money the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Program delivered to rural towns and counties in Virginia. The outlay was $1.2 billion in 2016 and about $1.75 billion in 2017. Where does that money go? To build big infrastructure projects such as water and sewer systems. To underwrite loans to businesses. To build libraries and schools and hospitals. To launch farmers markets and to help build and pay for housing. Most communities falling within Appalachian Virginia take advantage of this federal money. In 2016, more than a dozen towns and counties won awards totaling $4 million or more. With Washington County at $59 million and Bath County at $28.5 million dollars. Craig Barbaro, based in Wytheville, directs USDA Rural Development programs in the region, and he points to examples such as the $17 million expansion of Galax Elementary School and a micro-enterprise revolving loan fund in Floyd that helps get an artisanal coffee roaster off the ground. With hundreds of millions of dollars to be had, you’d think that every town and city would know about the program, but that’s not the case. Barbaro works hard to get the word out. For links to resources and best practices, the USDA created an interactive web page. You can go to and search for Rural Development Innovation Center. Speaking of big money, Eric Dixon of Appalachian Citizens Law Center, talks about hundreds of millions of dollars pumped into the region from other federal sources. In your expert tip, he makes reference to the power initiative, The Reclaim Act, and the AML pilot program. These are all things that inject money or would inject investment in a distressed coal communities in Appalachia and there’s, you know, there’s work that we have to do to make sure that though that money gets to communities throughout the region not just the communities that already have resources to take advantage of those grants. Like if we’re really gonna make a just transition in Appalachia, we have to make sure that even the small towns that maybe haven’t had a robust economy have access to those grants, and that’s, that’s I think a gap that we still have in the region that we need to make sure we’re filling moving forward. You can read a transcript at the complete interview at the Save Our Towns website were Dickson details where you can find out more about these sources of money. And now a reminder about Virginia Cooperative Extension. Extension agents and specialists live and work around the Commonwealth, dedicated to subjects such as land management, financial planning, and community leadership. On the Save Our Towns website, click on the extension tab. There you can learn much more. You’ll find extension agents listed along with their areas of expertise and contact information. Next, three questions for our mayor. I’m Mike Barber. I’m the mayor of the town of Christiansburg, Virginia. I think it would be hometown we strive to give everybody the feeling that this is their hometown, whether they’re born and raised here like I am or they’ve moved here in the last few years or two months ago. Well our downtown area. We have a lot of people that work in and around the center of downtown Christiansburg. We have, of course, the courthouse and we have this municipal office, but we have a lot of law firms, accounting firms, real estate firms, places that historically closed at 5 o’clock. We’re trying to create a scene or a place that people can stay after work. We consider ourselves a recreation center. We offer a recreation center that is free to our residents, the Harford Sports Complex hosted 1,300 games last year. We have the Huckleberry Trail: it’s an 8.8 mile trail that is constantly in use. We feel that’s an another way for them to get out and enjoy the scenery and nature here in Christiansburg. Would you like to nominate your town for an Examples of Awesome story? If so, we’d love to hear from you. To view past episodes and to dive deeper into resources and a wealth of information about small towns, go to the Save Our Towns website, and please send your thoughts to [email protected] We read and respond to every email. This is Episode 3 of Season 5. Thanks for watching. [MUSIC]

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