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Keeping history alive: Petersburg developer bringing new life to schools, mills and other historic 'gems' in Amherst, Bedford counties

The walls are crumbling, paint is peeling off the doors and holes in the roof bring sunlight directly inside to make all the graffiti and broken windows even more noticeable.

Where some may see the former Phelps Road school in Madison Heights as an eyesore, Dave McCormack sees an opportunity. And while bells may not have rung in the hallways in nearly three decades since it closed its doors as a school, he can hear doorbells ringing in the near future when the building becomes apartments.

McCormack’s company, Waukeshaw Development Inc., is restoring the 41,000-square-foot building built 94 years ago with several later additions into a complex for 41 market-rate housing units. On a recent tour of a portion of the dilapidated building, McCormack said the project is a textbook example of what his Petersburg-based company has a track record of doing throughout Virginia, including Amherst and Bedford counties: taking historic properties and restoring them into newer, better versions of themselves.

“I love history and I really like old buildings,” said McCormack, a New Jersey native who now resides in Petersburg, while looking at the old school’s cracks and corners. “This was slated to be knocked down. I love the idea we’re repurposing something perceived as not having value. It will be not just a good business decision but good for the community.”

The estimated $6.5 million project is one of six projects the developer is working on or has completed in Amherst and Bedford counties. The company in recent years completed Beale’s, a Bedford brewery and restaurant, and the Bedford Lofts, a former tobacco factory-turned-apartment complex, and also is working to turn two former schools next to each other on Longwood Avenue into a hotel, apartments and other uses.

Investments budgeted in the three Bedford properties combined total more than $15 million, according to project descriptions on the company’s website.

Waukeshaw Development in February purchased Winton Farm, a country club and golf course property on 285 acres, from Amherst County for $800,000 and has a $7 million budget for that property, according to its website. It also is restoring a former Amherst mill into a new brewery and restaurant, a $2 million project. The company has about two dozen other building projects in Virginia and one in North Carolina.

Prior to touring the Phelps Road property a few days after Labor Day, McCormack had just come from a meeting with Bedford officials on pending plans to turn a former school in the town of Bedford known as “Old Yellow” into a boutique hotel, a project that also includes transforming the former Bedford Middle School, which closed a few years ago, into new apartments, a gym and an incubator for businesses.

McCormack said projects in communities such as Bedford and Amherst are important because of the fond connections many of the residents have with those buildings. “We’re celebrating these buildings,” McCormack said. “People are proud of where they live.”

Waukeshaw Development purchased the Phelps Road school from a previous owner for $50,000 a few years ago, deeded it to the Amherst County Economic Development Authority and is in the process of buying it back, McCormack said. While asbestos abatement and other environmental issues are sorted out with the help of a state grant, he said in mid-October work is set to ramp up toward getting the property restored.

A Virginia Tech graduate with a degree in geophysics, McCormack said the historic narratives tied to properties his company has bought are worth preserving and keeping alive.

“The stories make them special,” he said of the historic narrative tied to the properties. “Each one tells a certain story.”

Looking at a classroom in the Phelps Road building with old chalkboards and large windows with picturesque views of a bustling U.S. 29 corridor in Madison Heights, McCormack said such rooms lend themselves well as living spaces.

“It’s a perfect square,” McCormack said. “It’s easy to think about dropping in a kitchen, a bathroom and start carving it up. They’re just clean, nice spaces.”

While getting the building in “shell condition” for work to start, he said he is hopeful the project tentatively could be completed late next year. “The location is awesome,” he said of its spot nestled just above the highway in a cluster of some of Amherst County’s most frequented businesses. “I believe we’ll fill this up quickly.”

Emily Sanfratella, chief operating officer for Waukeshaw, said the new apartments will attract a diverse tenant base close to Lynchburg.

“We’re really excited about doing apartments here in Amherst because it’s an unserved market,” Sanfratella said. “When you look at what’s going on in Lynchburg and all the new apartments downtown there, there’s nothing like that across the bridge. This is a great opportunity.”

Beale’s Brewery in Bedford has generated about 30 jobs, McCormack said, in a stretch of town affected by the loss of jobs when Rubatex, a rubber manufacturer, closed its doors years ago.

“Breweries are a big deal now, but they’re a form of manufacturing,” he said. “It’s a way to bring manufacturing jobs back.”

Mary Zirkle, economic coordinator for the Town of Bedford, said she believes the future boutique hotel will be a destination and compliments the company’s other projects in town. She praised Waukeshaw Development for figuring out successful formulas in small communities.

“Waukeshaw has proven itself in Bedford,” Zirkle said. “It’s a great reuse of those buildings.”

McCormack said the company has many teams working to bring projects to fruition. “It’s a ton of work ... but it’s not all that different from working on a house.”

Walking through the one-time cafeteria of the former school on Phelps Road, he said when he first saw it had plants growing and massive piles of debris and trash.

“This was a disaster,” McCormack said, glancing around the large room. “This is where people say, ‘Oh my God, how can you possibly bring this back?’ But you are looking at basically a cinder block cube here. When you start looking at it this way, it’s not that complex ... it doesn’t make sense to throw a building like this away.”

About 20 minutes north on Union Hill Road in the town of Amherst a short while later, McCormack gives another tour of work ongoing at Camp Trapezium, a future brewery and restaurant taking shape within the former Amherst Milling Co., which the company purchased from an Amherst family in 2017. Work is nearing the finish line on the project; brewing equipment and a bar have been put in and opening is tentatively planned for next spring, he said.

The project is taking place on 30 acres with a greenhouse, beehives for honey and two adjacent homes, one for employees and another for overnight guests, he said. The land will be used for ingredients in the beer-crafting process.

Despite the many structural challenges the old mill brings, he loves the building’s “iconic” character as the county’s last remaining working mill. The upstairs will be kept as a museum with much of the mill equipment intact.

“The goal is to make it seem like we’ve never done anything in the building,” McCormack said. “To me this is very much a hidden gem ... I just love the construction of it. You can look at these old beams and the way it was put together. It’s like an engineering marvel.”

At Winton Farm on Virginia 151 in northern Amherst County, McCormack said the company put a lot of money and energy in fixing up the pool, touching up the golf course, stabilizing finances and addressing improvements badly needed, such as working bathrooms.

He also had solar panels installed that went into use this month, a $200,000 investment he said would include payments less than the current power bill for a 10-year period. After the 10-year period, the company won’t have a bill at all and the solar panel array is enough to power the entire site, according to McCormack.

While the first phase of Winton included fixing immediate needs such as roofs, plumbing and painting, the second phase down the road will tackle what to do with restoring some of the old buildings. McCormack has said publicly he wants to preserve the site’s charm and redevelop in a way that keeps its history preserved.

He said he’s enjoyed getting to know folks in Central Virginia while working on the projects.

“When you’re working in a small town, there’s a lot of emotion in it,” McCormack said. “People are very invested in what you’re doing and want to see great things happen. That’s better than making money. I’ve enjoyed that immensely. We’ve made some amazing friendships. That’s the best part of the job.”

Reach Justin Faulconer at (434) 385-5551.

Reach Justin Faulconer at (434) 385-5551.

Reach Justin Faulconer at (434) 385-5551.

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