The Estes Community Center in Chase City was packed on Tuesday night as citizens showed up to offer suggestions on how a $500,000 gift to the town should be spent. The meeting was hosted by farmer and businessman Mac Bailey. Last year Bailey announced that he would make the half a million dollar donation to the town. The offer came while Mecklenburg County was still debating the fate of a large solar project that planned to purchase a large tract of land adjacent to Chase City from Bailey.
Bailey welcomed the crowd on Tuesday night and told them that he wanted their ideas. He added that $500,000 was a lot of money but would not be enough to bring large numbers of jobs back to the community.
As a young man, said Bailey, he could remember when there were lines of traffic in town every morning as people would go to work in the factories and lines in the afternoon when they’d get off. Main Street was packed with businesses and the community was thriving. Bailey told the crowd that he needed their input and suggestion on how to use the funds to do the most good for the community.
Most of the suggestions received revolved around increasing the tourism business in the area and recreation opportunities for local youth. Also mentioned were various educational programs, new Christmas decorations and more.
Local businessman Charles Ramsey made a case for promoting tourism in general and MacCallum More Museum and Gardens in particular. The gardens, he explained, are probably the most recognizable and largest tourist draw in the community.
Ramsey explained that tourism has become the fifth largest employer in the state. In Mecklenburg, the tourism business is up to four times larger than it is in surrounding counties.
“We’re seeking an amount in practical terms to become even more of a destination for tourists and visitors,” said Ramsey.
Ramsey said that MacCallum More, working with the Southside Roller Mills, the
Mecca Theater and Bondurant Brothers are “all attractions we can use to help bring things back to life,” Pointing out that with tourists comes the need for restaurants, shops and places to stay. All of which, he said, create new jobs.
Ramsey said MacCallum More was limited in the number of visitors the gardens can accommodate due to the low number of rest rooms available and asked for $100,000 to correct the issue and to generally renovate the basement of “the garden house.”
“I believe,” said Ramsey, “that MacCallum More Museum and Gardens is a vital part of Chase City’s revitalization.”
Ritchie Richards made a similar request for “Save our Heritage,” the group working to restore the Southside Roller Mills and the Mecca Theater
Richards pointed out that the Roller Mills is a historical treasure as one of only a dozen roller mills of this type still intact. The mill received widespread attention several years ago when it was named one of the most endangered historic sites in the Commonwealth. “Save our Heritage” purchased the property and hopes to restore the mill but will have to install rest rooms before the site can be opened as a tourist attraction.
Richards also said that a part time worker at the mill could continue with the ongoing clean-up project and help maintain the grounds.
As with MacCallum More Museum and Gardens, Richards also said that the organization would want to coordinate with the other potential tourist attractions in the community and county.
Carlos Davis told the crowd that he had made mistakes growing up and spent 17 years in prison. After getting out, he said that he had returned to Chase City and began paying attention to local government, “from someone on the outside looking in.” Addressing Mr. Bailey, Davis said that he believed the most crucial need in the community was the kids and how they get into trouble. “Kids here have nothing,” said Davis, “They have nowhere to go, no one to turn to and no one to talk to.”
Davis pointed to the Community Basketball Courts on Fifth Street and the poor condition the facilities are in. He added that while the Town has many needs, none are more important than the kids.
Beverly Wood, the driving force behind the renovation of the Mecca Theater, told the group that once the historic designation is in place, there will be money to start the actual process of renovating the facility, which she said, would be a second run theater. She added that during her career in the film industry she had made a lot of friends, many of them, she said, have expressed a willingness to come to the community for workshops, give talks about film making and generally make the Mecca not just a tourist attraction but an educational facility.
A particularly poignant moment came when a local restaurant owner said that the business outlook in Chase City had been bleak and the restaurant had struggled. The restaurant had, the owner admitted, taken on a somewhat shabby look which also hurt business. She suggested that while trying to lure new business to the community was understandable, the community also needed to support the businesses that have been here.
Another suggestion was made for a community facility similar to the new “Exchange” building which recently opened in South Hill. The facility would be a multi-function facility that could be used for indoor functions, community gathering, youth events and more.
Bailey told the gathering that he had heard a lot of good ideas.
“I’m more confused than I was,” said Bailey. “I thought this would be easier but I don’t know where to turn. It’s going to be a bigger job to decide how to spend this money than it was raising it. It’s going to be a tough decision,” he said. “There are so many needs in Chase City. We need another million dollars to get started. I want to take all the suggestions and review them.”
Although Bailey said that he wants to form a committee of local citizens to help determine how the money should be spent, he did say there were certain things he did want to do.
“I want to contribute to the Rescue Squad, the Fire Department and the Police Department. Those are three things on my mind.”
Bailey also said that the town did need to “spruce up” and said that he has noticed buildings where the large windows were boarded up. He added that he wants to try to help people who are trying to keep their buildings in good condition, adding that he thinks it possible to help the restaurant owner who spoke out.
He also returned to an idea he outlines during the program. He suggests a small office where people looking for work can connect with people looking to have work done. As he describes it, the office could be manned by one person. People in the community who are looking for work would register with the office, talking about the jobs they could do. People who needed work done could call and describe the work they want done. The single office worker would than put the two in touch.
Bailey also said that while all of the ideas discussed had merit, not all of them would be implemented.
“I know it’s all important but there is no way $500,000 is going to do it all,” said Bailey. “I want us to narrow it down to a few things but we need to do more talking about it. One thing I can say, I had no idea there were going to be as many people there. I was floored. That tells me that the people in Chase City care. I was really impressed with that.”