In Southside's Lawrenceville, an end or a rebirth?
LAWRENCEVILLE, Va. (AP) -- After 125 years, tiny St. Paul's College closes forever on June 30 - a big loss for a little town and a sad setback of the kind that has become all too common across Virginia's rural Southside region in recent decades.
For a village of about 1,400 people, playing host to a four-year institution of higher learning was rare, and it was a point of pride for the Brunswick County seat of government.
And St. Paul's history was compelling. It was established by the Episcopal Church in 1888 to educate and train former slaves and their progeny to earn a living as free people in a South where equality under the law was still generations away.
Lawrenceville, though, is accustomed to setbacks.
Hundreds of jobs vanished a couple of years ago when Virginia closed the Brunswick Correctional Center, just outside the city limits.
A little more than eight years ago, the closure of the Peebles department store in Lawrenceville's scenic downtown not only left residents with nowhere to buy a men's suit or a ladies' handbag, it was like a death in the family.
That store, opened in 1891 by W.S. Peebles Sr., was the first in what is now a chain retailer with $1.5 billion in 2010 sales from more than 800 stores that employ 13,000 people in small towns across 40 states. But its corporate headquarters deemed Peebles' birthplace too small, and Lawrenceburg's landmark original store shut its doors for good on Dec. 31, 2004.
"Where do you go in Lawrenceville now to buy a graduation gift?" said Sylvia Allen, editor of the weekly Brunswick Times-Gazette. "There is no place."
The final shutdown of St. Paul's follows a long decline. At its height, the small school enrolled 600 students and fielded competitive football and basketball teams. As enrollment waned, sports were discontinued. Its final academic year last fall began with only about 110 students.
Pino's Pizza ebbed and flowed with the students' perennial migrations.
"Every single fall was a very nice peak for us," said Tarek Ibrahim, who now runs the thriving Italian cafe his father opened around the corner from the courthouse in 1987.
"They'd come back from the summer, from summer jobs, with a little money and they'd really spend it. Homecoming was our biggest single day of the year every year," Ibrahim said. "We've known this was coming and we've been afraid for this year to come. We're wondering what 2014 will be like. We all have our hand on our heart."
Lawrenceville has a few vacant storefronts, including the old Peebles structure. But it has a sense of almost playful innovation that finds unconventional ways put empty structures back in use. Next to the Peebles building, a fitness parlor - Cutting Edge Gym II - has opened. And the city council this month just amended its zoning laws to allow for residential lofts and apartments to be developed one floor over downtown's shops and offices.
"I'm not ready to surrender," said Jo Somers, who in December opened the Fancy Frog Thriftique Mall in the rambling two-story structure where she and her husband once ran a furniture store. "We're paying the bills; we're keeping the lights on."
In Lawrenceville, as in other struggling farm towns along Virginia's southern boundary, it's the sort of bad news that seems to recur as regularly as the tides. Downturns in tobacco production, coal mining, and in textile and furniture manufacturing have been particularly cruel to communities such as Emporia, Danville and Martinsville.
Route 58 snakes along 520 miles of Virginia from the Atlantic Ocean to the Kentucky border, never more than a few miles from the North Carolina line, stringing together some of Virginia's most economically challenged communities, including Brunswick County. Average unemployment for the 22 localities along U.S. 58 was 7.8 percent in April - including affluent metropolitan localities of Virginia Beach and Chesapeake - compared with the statewide average of 5.2 percent. In Brunswick, it was 9.2 percent.
"Every time you see something like this happen, you see the word `devastating,'" said Mayor Doug Pond, a former Lawrenceville policeman with resolute gray eyes, a thick mop of gray hair and a Connecticut-Yankee dialect still sharp despite 41 years of immersion in slow Dixie drawls.
"Well, I can't sit back and say `devastating' because part of my job as mayor is to take this negative and turn it into a positive," said Pond. The dozens of deals he always seems to be negotiating is one reason Lawrenceville hasn't surrendered to misfortune the way some Southside communities have.
Almost overnight, Pond said, Lawrenceville's revenue plunged by 13 percent just from the loss of water and sewer bill payments from the state on its shuttered prison and the 1,500 inmates it had moved elsewhere.
His solution: Lawrenceville just signed a contract with neighboring Alberta to take over its water and wastewater treatment services. Problem solved.
Lawrenceville could more than offset the lost prison jobs if Virginia's dominant electrical utility, Dominion, carries out its plans to build a new gas-fired electrical power plant in Brunswick County. Dominion's application for the $1.3 billion complex hit a snag Thursday, however, when a State Corporation Commission hearing examiner recommended that the regulatory board reject it.
Pond's eyes narrowed and he chose his words precisely.
"My job, sir, is to counteract hopelessness," he said. "The glass is half full, sir."
Bob Lewis has covered Virginia politics and government for The Associated Press since 2000. On Twitter (at)APBobLewis.