By Olivia Hampton
From where they sit in the city’s municipal building, the future of Buena Vista looks bright to City Manager Jay Scudder and Economic Development Director Brian Brown. But to others, the road to revitalization seems long.
Scudder and Brown have lofty, and mostly shared, goals for the city. But the two men don’t always share the same timeline. Scudder wants to set a strong financial base for growth, and he acknowledges that that will take time. Brown wants to see the community revitalize quickly, with community involvement as the key.
Scudder says a growing landscape of educated people in the city will lead to better workers in Buena Vista’s current industries. As the city’s student populations rise, he says, more businesses will come to the city.
“I think people are going to locate here,” he said. “I think Southern Virginia University is going to grow and be a big cultural and economic factor.”
The university has 700 students but plans to grow. Scudder says the school and city have a good relationship, and SVU’s growth will boost the city’s economy.
While he does not think Buena Vista will attract the same kind of downtown restaurant business that Lexington does, he says downtown should reap other benefits from a growing student population.
Terry Rephann, regional economist with the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia, says SVU’s Mormon affiliation could be a draw for the city.
“I would think that with the Church of Latter-Day Saints, they are growing, and their growth is probably assured,” Rephann said. “That could make a big difference in Buena Vista.”
Brown agrees on the value of a collegiate presence in the city. But he points also to the students and administration of Dabney S. Lancaster Community College, which maintains a campus next to the Vista Links golf course. Brown says the college has been instrumental in growing the workforce in Buena Vista.
He said a program through Dabney Lancaster has already seen success in training employees.
“The Valley OJT program, which is a job training program, has helped our industries with $200 thousand dollars in grant resources to hire full-time people working here at our facilities.”
Brown also said that Dabney Lancaster is partnering with the city on many projects, including the community garden.
Product from the garden will be used in the college’s classrooms.
“They have an idea for a sustainable agriculture program, and we looked at this as possibly a test ground for that program,” he said.
Brown said that the partnership with the community college was critical to the success of the project.
Buena Vista City Manager Jay Scudder’s approach to rebuilding the city is largely centered on jobs. Every business that can be drawn to the city will help, regardless of its size, he says.
“I truly believe [that if] you build it, the people will come,” he said. “People will go where the jobs are.”
Factories were once the backbone of blue-collar Buena Vista. But industries like car parts manufacturer Dana Corp. and shoe-insole creator Bontex left the city.
Scudder says industry is still thriving despite the loss of those major employers. He points to companies like vehicle heating system manufacturer Modine and food service provider Aramark.
“We have a strong industrial base. Our industries are solid. Our industries are growing,” he said. “Our industries need people. If they’re good workers and drug-free, about every plant in Buena Vista is hiring and needs good workers.”
He says the city’s remaining industries are a key reason for a drop in the unemployment rate to about 5.4 percent.
He hopes to pull a major industry or plant back into Buena Vista, but right now is focusing on smaller places with four to eight employees. He said Fastenal, an industrial supplies manufacturer, is an example of that type of employer.
While Scudder still hopes that a large industry like The Hershey Co. or Johnson & Johnson will bring a huge influx of jobs back to the area in the future, City Economic Development Director Brian Brown says that might not be realistic.
“To me, a big industry in [Buena Vista] is 150 to 200 employees,” he said. “It’s not 500, it’s not 1,000.”
Brown also envisions newer industries, like a sustainable plastics plant. But he doesn’t yet have a plan for drawing them to Buena Vista.
City Manager Jay Scudder is working with Economic Development Director Brian Brown on using financial resources for projects he thinks will benefit the city. He noted that the city recently invested $200,000 into refurbishing the old city hall, now the library.
Scudder supports Brown’s efforts to increase the appeal of Glen Maury Park and downtown.
“The thing that Buena Vista needs to do, in my opinion,” he says, “is to focus on beautifying our corridors, main roads and business areas.”
City officials hope that downtown beautification projects like landscaping and upgrading park amenities will increase tourism.
There has even been a proposal to move the popular Rockbridge County attraction Foamhenge — a Styrofoam replica of Stonehenge — to Glen Maury Park, but Brown says that is a long way off.
Terry Rephann, regional economist with the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia, says upgrading services like parks and recreation will make the city more attractive to its residents, but it won’t necessarily draw tourists.
“Typically, they may bring in visitors from the county and close by, but not tourists,” Rephann said. “I haven’t heard that used as a tourism tool.”
Scudder said the projects will stay small until the city is in better financial shape, but anything the city can do to become more attractive will help.
Brown has a number of plans for refurbishing the park and downtown corridor, and does not mind that these upgraded amenities are costing the city.
“We’d love to eventually make some money on it,” he said, “but we haven’t done so yet.”
In 2004, Buena Vista built Vista Links golf course to boost tourism and real estate development. But the 2008 recession and declining interest in golf nationwide left the city with a white elephant and a $15 million debt.
In December 2014, City Council voted to default on that debt for a second time, a move City Manager Jay Scudder supported.
“It is a total losing proposition to focus on that,” he said. “Any financial resources we have left we need to reinvest in ourselves.”
Scudder says the golf course will stay open for now, but the city is currently “in talks” with its loan insurer, and the course’s status could change.
The city used its municipal building and police station as collateral for Vista Links, so the insurance company could end up owning those properties as well as the golf course if an agreement is not reached. But Scudder doesn’t think that will happen.
City Economic Development Director Brian Brown is working with City Council Member Steve Baldridge, who is trying to build and open a chain hotel at the entrance to Vista Links. The private project is on hold until the city and the insurance company reach a settlement on the city’s debt.
Upgrading unattractive housing developments is a project City Manager Jay Scudder and Economic Development Director Brian Brown believe will help revitalize Buena Vista.
“We need to clean up our neighborhoods as far as what we do with solid waste,” Scudder said. “We need to clean up what we can.”
Brown said the city has opportunities to upgrade residential areas through federal grants and programs.
“We’ll actually have to add some demolition programs,” he said. “We have a derelict structure program that allows me to take one or two houses down a year.”
But he wants to move faster than the programs will allow.
“We have about 15 to 20 houses that need to come down, so we don’t want to wait that long to do so,” he said. “How can we maximize those resources to be able to do that much quicker, and be able to show greater beautification within our neighborhood areas?”
There is speculation that because of the city’s debt, Buena Vista might be forced to give up its city status and become a part of Rockbridge County.
Terry Rephann, regional economist with the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia, says that it usually takes a series of terrible financial decisions for a city to declare bankruptcy.
That hasn’t happened in Buena Vista, he said. The city’s situation is “more of an instance of a bad business attempt” with the Vista Links golf course rather than a long series of poor decisions.
City Manager Jay Scudder thinks Buena Vista would have to be in much deeper financial distress for the city to even consider joining the county.
“It will stay a city,” he said. “It’s really a thriving little city if you compare it to other smaller cities.”
Rephann agrees. He thinks Buena Vista will recover on its own.
“Buena Vista is not a Detroit,” he said.