Narrows is banking on Giles County’s abundance of outdoor recreation assets and just over $1 million in grant funding to bring vitality back to its downtown.
Project planning began in 2015, said Susan Kidd, director of strategic development. “We’d like to become a little more vibrant in our community and revive Narrows like it used to be — or maybe it’ll be something better.”
Narrows received $699,346 from Virginia’s portion of the federal Community Development Block Grant program to do several public infrastructure improvements, from parking lots to trails to property acquisition. The grant will also offer owners of downtown commercial buildings up to $15,000 for facade improvements, if they do an equal amount of other qualifying work on their properties. Kidd said that at least seven such projects would be funded.
“This is all under the bigger economic development strategy of playing up their proximity to the river and to hiking trails and all those other outdoors recreation amenities that are in Giles County,” said Patrick O’Brien of the New River Economic Development Commission. “So if you’ve got those visitors coming, you might as well get them to spend some money in those downtowns.”
The commission is assisting the county’s five towns in planning and grant application and management for projects. Pearisburg was recently awarded $699,090, and Rich Creek qualified for $699,275. Pembroke is working on a plan; its first proposal was not funded, O’Brien said.
Localities compete for the CDBG funding, the purpose of which is to “fix up downtown areas, relieve blight and improve the business potential in downtowns,” O’Brien said. The Narrows project is “very closely related to that.”
The money is a big deal to the town of 2,000 residents with an annual budget of less than $2 million.
Narrows won an additional $392,588 from the Appalachian Regional Commission to buy and refurbish a vacant garage for use as an outdoor outfitter, Kidd said. “The outfitter is an integral part of this whole thing. We would like to become an outdoor destination, that people to come float the river, fish in the creek, and say, ‘Oh, I’m going to Narrows to do that.’”
Kidd said Narrows also qualified for $7,000 as an affiliate of the Virginia Main Street Program. All together, it’s hoped that the grants will help boost the kind of commercial activity that Narrows enjoyed in its heyday.
It’s happened in other places.
In his nearly 30 years in the outdoor business, Shawn Hash of Tangent Outfitters said he has seen other communities with Narrows’ assets — affordable housing, natural beauty, streams, a river, hiking trails — grow fast with some private and public investments.
“If you have a better quality of life, your property values go up, you have more people who want to live there,” Hash said. “So Narrows, in my opinion has a ton of potential for really cool things happening. It really just boils down to effective and efficient execution of the different ideas.”
Narrows’ project is part of a larger tourism strategy for the county, which has in recent years billed itself as “Virginia’s Mountain Playground.” In 2015, officials designated the New River Water Trail to put communities along its length on the minds of river users. Tourism is Giles’ second largest economic sector, behind agriculture and forestry, said Cora Gnegy, county tourism marketing director.
The Appalachian Trail alone brings 5,000 visitors a year to the county, Gnegy said. All together, tourists account for an estimated $27 million in economic activity.
The Narrows plan is still under review by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (the project area sits in a historic district) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees construction that affects waterways.
Kidd said the review process is nearing completion. If approved, construction in Narrows is expected to take about two years. Pearisburg and Rich Creek are just beginning the review process, which can take several months.