Like countless towns and cities across this country, Danville, Virginia has seen times of boom and bust. In its heyday, the tobacco and textile industry made Danville one of the richest places in the Piedmont area. Once home of textile giant Dan River Fabrics andthe “World’s Best Tobacco Market,” in the early 2000s Danville’s two largest economic drivers: textile and tobacco were nearly extinct. Danville was a mill town that no longer had a mill and tobacco town that no longer had a tobacco market.
But today, Danville’s leaders aren’t reminiscing about the glory days of the past. They’re working to make Danville a vibrant city that people want to live, work and play. One of those leaders is J. Lee Vogler. Elected to City Council in 2012, Vogler became the youngest person ever elected at age 24. In 2018 Vogler was elected to a two-year term as Danville’s Vice Mayor by his fellow council members.
A member of the Conservatives for Clean Energy – VA Advisory Board, Vogler understands the important role clean energy plays in Danville’s economic future. “Clean energy also means economic development. More than 43 Virginia based companies are committed to powering their operations with 100% renewable energy, and 21 of Virginia’s 50 largest employers have set targets to procure more clean energy,” said Vogler. “Many major companies like Microsoft and Amazon are looking at communities that have more renewable energy in their portfolio.”
That’s one reason Danville’s leaders have embraced renewable energy. Danville’s city council oversees Danville Utilities, the largest municipal electric utility in Virginia, serving Danville and surrounding areas. In just the past three years, three utility-scale solar projects came online in Danville and a fourth is scheduled to be completed this year.
One of these solar projects came online in November of last year at the site of the old Ringold golf course just outside of the Danville city limits. “We repurposed a golf course that wasn’t being used anymore, converting it to a 12 megawatt solar farm,” said Vogler. “We’re saving millions in transmission charges because we’re creating our own electricity locally instead of buying it from utilities in Ohio and Pennsylvania and transmitting it through the grid.”
Under Vogler’s leadership, 7% of Danville’s electricity comes from solar (compared with 1.6% for Virginia). A remarkable 24% of Danville’s electricity is generated from renewable sources, mostly solar and hydro, compared with 6.4% for Virginia. Danville’s investment in solar energy shows how a rural community can position itself in a more competitive posture for economic development.
While clean energy is important to attracting business, quality of life issues are also important. “You can’t attract a major company if your city is not a place where they think their employees want to live and work,” said Vogler.
In 2013, city leaders focused on repurposing its “River District,” consisting of the traditional central business district, tobacco warehouse and manufacturing district along the banks of the Dan River. The new amenities featured the JTI Fountain and Main Street Plaza, which quickly became one of Danville’s favorite public gathering spaces. A new trailhead for the Riverwalk Trail is in place, and a pedestrian bridge connects walking trails on the north and south side of the Dan River.
“Eight years ago, there were about two hundred people living in our downtown River District. Now about 2,300 empty nesters and young people are living downtown and growing,” said Vogler. “We have about a ninety eight percent occupancy rate in the River District for what are primarily loft apartments converted from old tobacco warehouses. “
Not far up Main Street, an influx of younger families, married couples, and singles are buying up single family homes. Many of these buyers have left unaffordable big cities and relocated to Danville, lured by home prices that start at around $100,000. Recently, Danville was ranked as the third most popular small city to move to in America, by the travel website MoveBuddha.com.
Vogler also recognized that depending on a couple industries is not a stable path to prosperity. “We’re creating a diversified economy through a number of paths, including advanced manufacturing in a partnership between Danville Community College, our public schools, and the Institute for Advanced Learning & Research. That has helped us attract global companies like Kyocera SGS, Overfinch, and Unison, just in the past year.”
It’s this comprehensive approach that earned Danville the 2020 All-American City award by the National Civic League. Danville was one of only 10 communities in the nation to receive this award that recognizes communities that are successfully handling community challenges.
Vogler acknowledges that Danville’s revival is in its early stages, but their investments in clean energy infrastructure, education and urban renewal are paying off. “We’ve laid the foundation for Danville’s future. Do we still have challenges? Absolutely. But I believe the progress we’ve seen in the past decade will pay dividends in Danville for decades to come.”