Tobacco Commission funds Big Stone Gap business project

Mike Still • Dec 20, 2019 at 1:30 PM

BIG STONE GAP — Town officials got an early Christmas present Thursday: a quarter-million dollars to develop another level of the former Mutual Pharmacy building.

Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission Chairman Terry Kilgore announced the $250,000 grant during a meeting of local government and economic development officials at the Big Stone Gap Visitors Center.

“This is something we’d like to see not only in Big Stone, but we’d like to see other communities step up and do some of the things we’re doing right here in Big Stone,” Kilgore said. “There’s a lot of challenges not only in rural Virginia but in rural communities across the United States.”

The announcement came as part of a session hosted by economic development initiative Invest SWVA on small business co-working facilities.

Town Manager Steve Lawson said the grant will cover the cost of overhauling the building’s basement area into a co-working space that could house small technology or professional businesses needing a built-in broadband infrastructure.

Lawson said plans for the project include five separate office spaces and a shared meeting room similar to traditional business incubators. An open space taking up about a third of the basement could be divided into additional office space to accommodate additional business demand.

The project marks a third development phase for the former pharmacy building. In a joint effort between the town and its Redevelopment Housing Authority and Wayne and Tracy Jordan, Curklin’s restaurant opened on the first floor in October.

The RHA is working with the state Housing and Development Authority on mortgage financing to turn the building’s second floor into five market-rate apartments. Completion of that financing could come as soon as March.

Lawson said the Tobacco Commission grant means that the basement space could be ready to market to tenants as soon as next summer.

LENOWISCO Planning District Executive Director Duane Miller said the Mutual basement project can serve as an example to member localities in the Lonesome Pine Regional Industrial Facilities Authority. RIFA allows localities to cooperate on economic development projects that benefit all localities.

“The great thing about this initiative, if we had 10 or 15 jobs next door, that’s not going to be a threat to, say, the town of St. Paul, the town of Big Stone Gap,” Miller said. “They each have enough capacity for 10 or 15 jobs in each locality and, working together through the RIFA and as a region, we have five or six towns we can identify space for co-working space and bring people into those areas. Before we know what, we have 80 to 100 jobs created regionwide.”

Miller said a “robust” broadband infrastructure across the LENOWISCO Planning District helps make co-working space projects like Big Stone Gap’s viable in several towns. That infrastructure also makes Southwest Virginia competitive with urban areas for attracting small technology businesses and entrepreneurs.

The combination of apartment, restaurant and working space in the same building also helps the project’s marketability, Miller said.

“I know that a lot of us who graduated years ago, we know we lost a lot of our friends to Northern Virginia, Atlanta, Raleigh, and they’re gone,” Kilgore said. “Hopefully, with projects like this, we can continue to keep our best and brightest here, but also create an entrepreneurial shift and atmosphere where they can stay and can be productive in what they want to do.”

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