GRUNDY, Va. — Almost five years ago, a new, unique Walmart Supercenter opened in Grundy, Va.
It sits on stilts of sorts, located on top of a two-story parking garage that takes customers to the store by escalator.
The store also opened on an unusual site - 13 acres of flat land left after the side of a mountain was literally blasted away.
Not only that, the project to move the mountain and basically relocate most of the downtown area of flood-prone Grundy was one of the most expensive single projects in the history of Southwest Virginia - more than $200 million.
That’s quite an investment, but one that town leaders say has paid off, and will continue to do so.
James Keene, Grundy’s town manager, said despite the economic slowdown of coal, the Walmart and associated town center that sits on that 13 acres are doing well.
“It’s gone pretty good.” he said. “We obviously have struggled because of the downturn in the coal economy, but Walmart has been pleased with their performance here.”
Keene said several stores are now in the town center with Walmart, including a Mexican restaurant, TCBY, Donut Connection, Taco Bell, a law office, a dentist’s office, office for a coal company and the Factory Connection.
“We have only two spaces left,” he said, adding that only two outparcels of developable land remain on the property for construction as well. Three were available but a convenience store on that site should be under construction by the end of the month.
Development has been “a little slower than we would like, but primarily because of the economy,” he added.
However, if the project to relocate part of the town had not happened, there would most likely not be a town, he said, adding that the courthouse area was not relocated, but even that would flood from time to time.
“That project saved the town, which is the county seat of Buchanan County,” he said.
Although flooding had occurred for years in the downtown area, unfortunately developed at the junction of the Levisa Fork River and Slate Creek, it was the flood of 1977 which killed three people and caused $15 million in damages that started a gradual deterioration of most of the downtown area,
“There was only limited operating businesses in the old commercial row of buildings along Main Street (after that flood),” he said. “If anyone needed repairs, you couldn’t get it, or construction, because it was in a floodway. So when somebody went out of business, the building became dilapidated.”
By the 1990s, everyone involved was struggling with coming up with a plan to save the town.
Thanks to residents, town council, the county’s Industrial Development Authority, and state and federal agencies, a plan was finally put in place.
"You really have to point to the work of the people of that day,” he said. “And Congressman Rick Boucher was unbelievable, fantastic in his vision and in his work getting the government’s part of it.”
The government’s part was a bit tricky because federal funds were available for the flood control project, but required a 25 percent match, which was $25 million.
“That was an impossible sum,” he said. “The town could not come up with $25 million.”
However, state funds were available to finish the four-laning of U.S. 460, so the “innovative” idea was to use money that could be earmarked for that project in the county toward the federal matching grant.
The plan worked.
“It (the project) was over if not for that,” he said, adding that 55 structures in the old downtown area were razed.
A new four-laned U.S. 460 through town helped serve not only a financial need for the project, but also part of the floodwall.
“It’s truly a blessing,” said Keene.
Former Rep. Rick Boucher said it was really a collaborative effort that made the project succeed.
“It all worked,” said Boucher, who led the charge on the project. “Literally, we moved the mountain.”
Boucher, who was running for his 15th term when he lost to Rep. Morgan Griffith in the 2010 election, said it was quite a task to get all of the moving parts together to fund the project, a task, he said, managed by his long-time chief of staff, Becky Coleman.
“I give her full credit,” he said. “She did a remarkable job.”
That job included partnering with agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers and a private industry - Walmart.
“We are proud,” he said of the work. “It is the largest investment by the federal government ever made in Southwest Virginia, excluding highways.”
Boucher, who is now working for a law firm in Washington D.C., still living in Abingdon and has “no intention” of running for public office again, said the project was a “very high priority” for his office.
“I am very pleased of the many things that have happened in and around Grundy,” he said, mentioning the Appalachian School of Law and the Appalachian School of Pharmacy. “The town has been quite a success story. I am very happy about that.”
Some business managers in the town center are also happy about the town, and about business.
“It’s really doing good,” said Sherry Hurst, manager of the Factory Connection, a clothing store located in the town center.
“Business has really picked up,” she said. “We did really well last week. We were number three out of more than 500 stores.”
Hurst said the recent filming of the movie “Believe” in Grundy “really brought a lot of business in.”
They also get a lot of customers from visitors to the area, she said, and word of mouth has helped them in places like Richlands.
“We bust our tail to bring people in,” she said. “We want the business.”
The only complaint Hurst had was the need for more signage on U.S. 460. “We need another sign at the road,” she said, because some can’t see the one that is there. But, so far, permission has not been given by the town to do that.
Misty Koethe, manager of the town center’s Taco Bell, said she is also pleased with how well the store does.
“We do good,” she said. “We like the location too.”
Keene loves to see the businesses succeed, but it has been far more to him than just business.
“There is no doubt that the county seat was saved,” he said. “It’s all positive. I see no negatives.”
— Contact Charles Boothe at firstname.lastname@example.org.