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“Down Home In Grundy"
Lasting change often takes innovative thought and
sometimes, it seems as if the change will require moving mountains. In
Grundy, it’s taken both. However, the “moving mountains” part is
more than just a cliché ... it’s reality as this small town of 1,275
pulls together to pull down a mountain and, in the process, to re-invent
highwall cut at the Grundy redevelopment site will serve as the
backdrop for the “new town.” The Levisa River is pictured in
front and a bridge accessing the 13-acre site is on the right.
With help from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the
Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and a forward-thinking town
government, Grundy is literally moving mountains — rock-by-rock and a
truckload of dirt at a time — to escape the threat of flooding. The
process will also allow the community to grow and prosper once more.
Grundy is building a new town.
Nestled in the Appalachian Mountains in the far
southwest corner of Virginia, Grundy lies in the heart of Virginia’s
coalfields, just a few miles away from West Virginia and Kentucky. Among
its claims to fame are Appalachian author Lee Smith, who grew up in
Grundy, and nearby Breaks Interstate Park, often referred to as the
“Grand Canyon of the South.”
Army Corps of Engineers Grundy Project Engineer Lisa Morgan and
Bizzack, Inc., Superintendent Jim Hawkins stand atop the
redevelopment site highwall with present-day Grundy in the
Founded in 1858, Grundy was named after Sen. Felix
Grundy and features rugged terrain with steep mountains and narrow
valleys. It is that terrain and the town’s susceptibility to flooding,
from run-off and the swift-moving creeks and streams that flow into the
Levisa River, that in 1998 led the town into a cooperative agreement with
the Corps of Engineers and VDOT to move Grundy to higher ground.
Situated along the Levisa River, Grundy is the
Buchanan County seat and the county’s main retail center. Flooding has
virtually wiped out the town’s retail center almost every 20 years.
After the catastrophic flood of 1977, businesses that had been flooded
repeatedly chose not to renovate or reopen in a spot that would surely be
flooded again. As a result, Grundy’s trade center suffered serious
deterioration. The Grundy Flood Control Project that is now underway came
about during a study of how to reverse that trend and protect the town
Now, new life has been breathed into this town as its
residents and those in surrounding Buchanan County await its rebirth,
which signs indicate is fast approaching.
shot of Grundy’s Riverside Drive shows the proximity of the town
today to the Levisa River. Historically, the river has caused
catastrophic flooding in the town approximately every 20 years.
A year ago, work began to take down the mountain
along the Levisa River across from Grundy, creating a benched vertical
highwall that will serve as the backdrop for the new town and a relocated
Norfolk Southern Railroad track. In front of it, overlooking the river and
Buchanan County’s historic courthouse (built in 1905 and expanded in
subsequent years), the new town will be built. A flood ring-wall will be
built along Slate Creek, which drains into the Levisa in the heart of
downtown, to protect the courthouse, one of the few buildings to be left
in the old section of town. Other buildings along current-day Main Street
will be razed and relocated to the new town site in the 10 or so years it
takes to complete the project. And on the old town site, a new four-lane
road will be built to make travel through the area easier and at the same
time to fulfill a VDOT promise to work toward the completion of a
four-lane U.S. Route 460 to Kentucky.
Appalachian School of Law opened its doors to students five years
The project has created a lot of excitement in town
and in the county, especially for newly elected Mayor Willard Owens, and for Town Manager Chuck Crabtree, who has watched the mountain-moving effort from the
vantage point of a wall of windows in his office.
“It’s not often you have a town built in the late
1800s and early 1900s get the chance to build for the technology age,”
Owens says. “It’s unheard of.”
And while it may be unheard of, it’s happening.
Corps of Engineers contractors Bush & Burchett, of Allen, Ky., and
Bizzack, Inc., of Lexington, Ky., have been on the job a little more than
a year, working to move approximately two-million cubic meters of dirt and
rock to create the 13-acre redevelopment site where the new town will be
relocated. When the move is finished,
Davis, who left North Dakota to take the reins as ASL’s new
dean, says the sense of community in Grundy was a big part of his
family’s decision to move here.
Grundy is expected to contain not
only retail and office space, but housing to help ease a shortage
experienced in the community since the Appalachian School of Law (ASL)
opened its doors to students five years ago.
who left North Dakota for Grundy this month (January) to take the reins as
ASL’s new dean, says the sense of community he found when he visited
Grundy was a big part of his family’s decision to move here and to
accept the ASL post.
“This is an incredibly vibrant environment,” he
says. Davis first came to Grundy in 1999 as part of an American Bar
Association accreditation team, and never forgot his trip or the
view of current-day Grundy from high atop the redevelopment-site
mountain. In the foreground is coal found on the site and
recovered during construction. The historic courthouse is in the
center of the photo (clocktower). Between the site and the town
are Rt. 460 and the Levisa River.
“Grundy is an attractive, pretty place,” Davis
adds. “I really liked what I saw then. It was a small law school
struggling to get started and there were some really nice people able to
all pull in the same direction.”
Crabtree and Owens both say it is that ability to
pull in the same direction, to cooperate to get the job done, that has
spurred Grundy’s success. Buchanan County Chamber of Commerce Executive
Director Mary McClanahan
“This community has always stood strong in unity
and has always found the strength from within to work together to do
whatever it takes to keep the community’s best interests at heart,”
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Grundy Project Engineer Lisa
Morgan says the coordination and cooperation from day-one of the
project have been good at all levels.
“Everybody comes to the table and wants to do a
good job,” she says. “The contractor wants to leave Grundy a project
to be proud of.”
County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Mary McClanahan in
her office, one of the offices to be moved to the new town center.
The new Comfort Inn and the Appalachian School of Law
came to Grundy as work to finalize the agreement for the town project was
ongoing. Plans to build the 55-mile Coalfields Expressway from West
Virginia through Buchanan County and Grundy and into neighboring Dickenson
County before its terminus in Pound in Wise County, as well as plans for a
new municipal airport tied in with the expressway project, have further
added to a brighter outlook for Grundy’s future.
As Crabtree puts it, “success breeds success.”
The groundwork for that success was laid 10 years ago
in 1993 when town leaders recognized the decline in Grundy’s economy and
decided to do something about it. At the same time, they addressed another
concern, that of giving youth in the community a reason to come to town.
The town government took matters into its own hands and with VDOT’s
cooperation, built a state-of-the-art three-cinema movie house on the
little-utilized third floor of an existing parking building in the center
of town, then renovated another building downtown to create a teen center
to give area youth a place to call their own.
“That was really the first phase of it all,”
Crabtree says. “There were people out there who said it won’t work,
but after the second year, we were the number-one-watched theater.”
The theater also gave the town something infinitely
more valuable as it made plans, moving forward on the flood-control
project. Now, it had the ability to track, by zip code, who its patrons
were and where they came from. It gave town leaders an idea of what they
might expect for businesses locating in the “new Grundy.” What those
statistics proved was that the theater was attracting people from the
As a result, agreements were signed and work began in
July 2001 to literally move the mountain to make a new Grundy possible. By
late spring 2003, the site is expected to be ready, and then the process
of putting up buildings on the site will begin. In the meantime, Crabtree
says, fiber-optics and water-and-sewage infrastructure will be constructed
in the new area.
Grundy expects to regain a large portion of the
estimated $50 million in trade leakage now going out of the town as retail
shoppers go elsewhere, according to Crabtree.
Already, some success in that arena is evident as an
empty shell building originally constructed to house industry, is
renovated and turned into a new retail center for businesses being
impacted by the project before the new town-center space is ready.
Other plans include a higher-education precinct,
combining the efforts of already successful Southwest Virginia Community
College’s branch campus and new programs offered by Virginia Intermont
College that make a four-year degree possible in Buchanan County.
“There’s not one thing that makes Grundy a
success, it’s a combination of all the things we’re working on,”
The key to its future, Crabtree adds, is successful
development of the new town center. “The Grundy project shows that a
small, rural community with help, vision and working together can move
Owens agrees, noting that Grundy’s opportunity to
design and shape its future is one-of-a-kind.
“We’ve got a golden opportunity now,” Owens
says. “People talk about once-in-a lifetime chances — this is the
chance of 100 lifetimes.”