Brad Stephens stood in the kitchen of a newly renovated Southeast Roanoke house, sounding like a real estate agent trying to close a deal.
“New cabinets,” he said, pointing to the island counter in the middle of the room and the cabinets along the walls. “New appliances. New windows. The backsplash will be finished next week. … It’s a really nice space.”
The house stands atop a rise above the busy four-lane stretch where Jamison Avenue becomes Dale Avenue in the Belmont neighborhood. A brightly painted mural adorns a concrete wall that runs along the street just below the house. The ornate front window, made of the original leaded glass from when the house was built around 1906, will offer a view of Mill Mountain and the Roanoke Star, as well as the Arby’s across the street. Stephens joked that a pedestrian bridge to the Arby’s would be a nice selling point.
But Stephens isn’t a real estate agent and he wasn’t trying to make a sale — at least not yet. Stephens is the new director of the Roanoke nonprofit REACH, a group that organized volunteers and businesses into a team that turned a once-dilapidated house into a showpiece that could spark new life in the old neighborhood.
The finished house will also serve as a testament to the legacy of REACH founder Tim Dayton, who stepped down from the group after being diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer last year.
Dayton, 65, urged REACH’s board of directors to hire Stephens, 35, who had been a consultant to the nonprofit and who was a former director of the CoLab co-working and entrepreneurial hub on Grandin Road. The two men had worked closely together on several REACH projects in recent years, which have included renovations that rely on volunteer labor from within the neighborhoods that are being served.
“He is one of the few community organizers who understood REACH,” Dayton said. “He gets it. He understands the connections between local people, government, churches and everybody involved.”
Dayton, who lives in Roanoke’s Old Southwest neighborhood with his wife, bonnie (she’s a former English teacher who spells her name in lowercase as a tribute to poet e.e. cummings), said that despite receiving a terminal cancer prognosis a year ago: “All things considered, I am doing very well.”
REACH, which stands for Real Experiences Affecting Change, was the most personal project Dayton ever launched. Having been a teacher, minister, bartender, salesman and a guy handy with a hammer, Dayton established REACH in 2010 as an organization that measured success in terms of service provided, not just in number of completed projects.
He also knew that the group was so intertwined with his own identity, personality and beliefs, that it was not naturally set up to have a built-in system of succession. In an interview last fall, Dayton admitted that he had not “set it up well enough to last after I’m gone.”
Stephens, who became fulltime director on March 1 after serving as acting director since Jan. 1, said that succeeding the nonprofit’s founder and primary decision-maker is “highly intimidating.”
“Tim is hugely charismatic,” Stephens said.
Even though Stephens will oversee some of the final work done at the Southeast Roanoke house, he said that the renovation is a testament to Dayton’s vision and the work of community volunteers and businesses that donated time and labor.
The two-story house on Dale Avenue has nearly 1,700 square feet of living space, according to city records, and contains five bedrooms and three bathrooms. An open kitchen on the bottom floor will be outfitted with new appliances, which include a stainless steel LG refrigerator, a dishwasher and an electric range.
The hope is that someone from the neighborhood will buy the house, as a statement of support and investment in the southeast Roanoke community. If a buyer isn’t found, the house will go on the market later this spring, Stephens said.
REACH bought the Dale Avenue house and the one next door at an auction for $9,500 each. Profits from the sale of the houses will fund future REACH projects. The house next door, also quite blighted, will be the next renovation job.
Stephens is a Charlottesville native who earned a master’s degree in forest resources and environmental conservation before settling in Roanoke just a couple of blocks from where Dayton lives. His wife, Sarah, is a volunteers coordinator for Goodwill Industries, and the couple has a 3-year-old daughter, and Sarah is pregnant with their second child.
He worked in construction for his father’s contracting company, so he describes himself jokingly as “not inept” when it comes to home renovation.
The Dale Avenue houses stand in Roanoke’s “target area” of the Belmont-Fallon neighborhood, which will receive enhanced attention, grants and community development work over a five-year period that started in 2019. The city expects to invest about $1.7 million in the neighborhood to rehabilitate houses, build new homes, repair streets and sidewalks, enforce building codes and make more improvements. Other nonprofit groups, such as Habitat for Humanity, will contribute to the renovation projects.
“There is a real sense of possibility,” Stephens said. “The houses that have become rundown are the more prominent houses. It makes a statement to see them turned around, especially from a psychological perspective. Our hope is we are not alone in this.”