The streets of Stuart, Virginia, are quiet, even on a Friday night. If you want to listen to live music, watch a play, or see a movie, your options are limited in the Patrick County town of about 1,400.

Many residents travel an hour or more for a night out, heading to Floyd or Rocky Mount for entertainment. But alumnus Bryce Simmons wants to change that.

“There’s no attraction here,” said Simmons, who earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in 2007 and now serves his hometown as town manager. “We have gorgeous views you can’t purchase, but we lack an anchor institution to bring people into town, walk the streets, spend money, and get something to eat. I think every town needs that to be sustainable.”

What Stuart does have is a 1940s theater — renovated more than 15 years ago. Could investment in the old theater be the economic spark the town needs? Simmons turned to Virginia Tech to help answer that question.

He didn’t, however, have to travel all the way to Blacksburg. Instead, he turned to the nearby Reynolds Homestead, which for more than 50 years has served as the university’s engagement center in the region.

“They are without a doubt the one organization that is able to connect our region to the university’s resources,” Simmons said. “A lot of times, it’s difficult for a manager of a small town to approach a large institution like Virginia Tech and know where to go and who to talk to. The Reynolds Homestead makes it much easier to wade through that system and find the experts you need.”

Reynolds Homestead Director Julie Walters Steele connected Simmons to Sarah Lyon-Hill of the Center for Economic and Community Engagement (CECE) to discuss the town’s revitalization plans, including the theater.

“Historic theaters can have a significant impact on small towns, providing a focal point for community activity, driving economic growth, preserving local history, and creating jobs,” said Lyon-Hill, CECE’s associate director for research development. “But a study that examines the market and the likelihood of success can provide more clarity on the effect a historic theater might have on a particular town.”

Graduate students take lead

Lyon-Hill knew she had the perfect team for the job — CECE’s five graduate assistants, all of whom have been working with the center for a year and are nearing graduation.

“The great thing about this project is that it’s grad student led, it’s grad student managed, and it’s grad student operated,” said William Ferris, a doctoral candidate through the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “CECE gives us a great chance to spread our wings. It’s very rewarding that CECE trusts us to operate on our own and apply our expertise to achieve tangible results.”

Along with Ferris, the team also included School of Public and International Affairs students Allison Ulaky, Kit Friedman, and Jason Schwartz — all master’s candidates in urban and regional planning — and Hye-Jeong Seo, a doctoral candidate in planning, governance, and globalization and a fellow in the Interfaces of Global Change Program.

Ferris and Friedman toured the old theater and talked to local business owners. Ulaky, meanwhile, developed and managed surveys and other engagement remotely while Schwartz and Seo researched and crunched the data.

“There is a real sense of community in Stuart. The people in that area really seem to care about what’s going on in their backyards and were very vocal about what they’d like to see and how the theater would impact their lives,” Ulaky said.

Simmons said a survey that CECE created and distributed was incredibly effective. “The data they found verified the information I thought I already knew,” he said. “It’s one thing for the town manager to go in front of council and say, ‘These are the numbers and this is the information I believe to be true.’ But then to be able to have a third party come in and evaluate the situation and say, ‘Yes, you’re right. These numbers match up’ — that gives me a podium to stand on to say that we are moving in the right direction.”

For Schwartz, having that kind of impact on the outcome of a project makes the work meaningful. “It’s more than academic work. It’s the real world, so nothing is black-and-white,” he said. “That’s the greatest benefit. No one is grading us, but our work is going to have impact.”

And the work also has an impact on what they do next. Friedman had already spent time working in state parks and other recreational organizations before coming to CECE. “With an undergraduate degree in natural resources and conservation, I have had a lot of random community engagement kinds of experiences. But working for CECE has really helped me pull everything together and pursue a job with a planning commission that combines environmental and economic development skills.”

Creative economy grows

If Simmons’ plan gets the town council’s approval, the Star Theatre would add one more venue to the newly designated downtown historic district — an area that sits removed at the bottom of the hill from the courthouse and other businesses. But it wouldn’t be the first arts-centered business to make a home there.

A Reynolds Homestead program that brings creative and business-minded entrepreneurs together has shepherded the establishment of two other businesses just steps from the old theater — the Rise and Shine Market and Calliope: A Circus of the Arts.

Both businesses promote local artists. The market provides a place for emerging artists to sell their work, while Calliope also provides retail space as well as room for arts studios and classes for all ages.

The Reynolds Homestead’s Julie Walters Steele is hopeful the economic growth will continue. “A creative economy can help retain a talented and diverse workforce, promote entrepreneurship and innovation, and create unique cultural experiences that draw in visitors and residents alike,” she said.

Simmons said he’d love to see the area become Stuart’s arts district. “To do your regular business you go uptown. But then when you’re ready to have a little bit of fun, you go downtown,” he said.

CECE and the Reynolds Homestead are both part of Outreach and International Affairs.

Written by Diane Deffenbaugh