BLACKSBURG — The town was selected to take part in a partnership that officials say will provide key aid in an effort to eventually establish a retail incubator downtown.
Blacksburg recently announced that it was one of three localities to earn a spot in the Mayors Innovative Design Cohort, which is described as a national partnership between the American Institute of Architects and the Mayors Innovation Project to “help build zero carbon, resilient, healthy and equitable cities.”
The partnership will contribute to a plan to establish a retail incubator in a now town-owned property that formerly housed a portion of the old Cook’s Clean Center at 414 N. Main St.
Cook’s Clean Center was split into a laundromat and dry cleaning sections, the latter of which Blacksburg owns. The owners of The Maroon Door gastropub own the laundromat portion, as well as the space that previously housed the old Mike’s Grill restaurant.
The Blacksburg-owned portion of the old Cook’s Clean Center is undergoing environmental remediation, a process town officials say they hope will be complete in about a year.
The recent announcement on the partnership noted that the area the incubator is being targeted for has seen an influx of redevelopment in recent years through restaurants, tech companies and the presence of the nearby Moss Arts Center at Virginia Tech.
Blacksburg Deputy Town Manager Chris Lawrence said the partnership will involve the provision of “technical assistance” via architects who will come from the Virginia chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The architects will over an expected six-month period craft a plan and design for the building, he said.
“This is a service project for them. They’re using this to advance the interest of good practice, the value of architecture,” said Lawrence, adding it will come at virtually no cost for the town.
The plan to be developed will include details such as approximately how many different businesses will be able to operate in the building itself, which is just under 6,000 square feet.
An incubator provides space and other services to a number of small businesses that provide promising products but aren’t quite ready to sign a lease for a brick and mortar location.
With a retail incubator, the public should expect businesses such as food vendors and ones that specialize in items such as jewelry and candles, Lawrence said.
In its recent announcement, the town said the retail incubator will aim for three primary goals: preserving and enhancing the atmosphere of Blacksburg’s historic downtown; providing the surrounding community with quality products and experiences; and giving entrepreneurs the opportunity to create and expand their businesses in a low-risk setting.
The idea of a retail incubator isn’t necessarily new as Blacksburg began working on the concept in 2019 with Downtown Blacksburg Inc., the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce and the Small Business Assistance Center.
The pandemic did delay some of that work, Lawrence said.
“We had to focus on more important things. You wouldn’t be opening an incubator in the middle of a pandemic. It just wasn’t realistic,” he said.
Lawrence, however, said the town knew it had an idea for supporting its downtown business retail sector and an unused building that needed to be reinvested in and improved. He said it made sense to bring the two things together.
The recent partnership has drawn praise from other town officials.
“This is such an exciting opportunity,” said Mayor Leslie Hager-Smith. “We’ll be using a collaborative approach to create a retail incubator right in the heart of Blacksburg’s historic commercial district. It will form a nexus for the arts, commerce and tourism while the physical space gives a boost to small businesses, as well as nonprofits. And we’re especially excited that we’ll be working with an experienced group of architecture professionals to bring this longtime dream to life.”
Mohsen Manteghi, Hager-Smith’s opponent in this year’s Blacksburg mayoral race, said the project sounds like a generally good concept.
“If the goal is to support our small businesses, I’m all for it,” Manteghi said. “Especially those [small businesses] who are just starting.”
Manteghi, however, said the project will surely create some additional infrastructural needs, which he hopes the town also addresses. The addition of more shops often leads to other challenges such as more traffic, he said.
Manteghi said he also hopes sufficient feedback is sought from a variety of stakeholders as he anticipates such as a project to affect a variety of groups in that area.