Generations of residents and Virginia Tech students alike have been attracted to Blacksburg by its small-town vibe, but some local businesspeople fear the town’s homegrown culture could become a thing of the past, as large-scale brands and franchises snap up downtown real estate once occupied by local companies.
“Blacksburg used to be a nice mixture of restaurants, bars, and retail,” said Gary Walker, Tech alumnus and proprietor of Cabo Fish Taco. “All the new stuff that’s opening up like Moe’s, Chipotle, Jimmy John’s. … These places are taking over spots that used to be really cool, locally owned businesses.”
As The Mellow Mushroom, a nationwide chain, seems poised to open a new location where local-favorite Backstreets once operated, many, along with Walker, are left wondering about the future of small retail and dining in downtown Blacksburg.
Downtown at a Crossroads
Tech alumnus Len Comaratta remembers a different, more vibrant Blacksburg, filled with small businesses, before a property auction 11 years ago saw many buildings downtown change hands. A longtime Blacksburg resident, Comaratta was an assistant manager of Crossroads at the time, a locally owned and operated music and video store that had several area locations.
In 2002, HCMF Corp., mired in financial problems as well as federal legal trouble, sold off its downtown properties in a hotly contested auction that saw Martinsville-based Lester Group feverishly outbid smaller-scale buyers.
“It was deemed by many as really shady,” said Comaratta of the events.
When Lester Group took ownership of the properties downtown, the company said it had no plans to make significant changes, but Comaratta claims the company did just that.
“They raised our rent from $4,200 to $6,700,” Comaratta recalled. “They were definitely gouging their tenants.”
Comaratta said that, despite upping their rent, Lester Group did little to help with structural problems plaguing the historic building that housed Crossroads.
The Collegiate Times reported that pipes had burst, heat and air-conditioning seldom worked, ceilings were damaged, and raw sewage regularly flooded the store. At one time, an issue with the building’s aging plumbing caused $40,000 in damages.
Lester Group maintained it was the responsibility of tenants to keep up their stores, pursuant to their lease agreements.
Crossroads lost a lawsuit and moved to a new location, before folding in Blacksburg for good. Once Crossroads moved out, Lester Group seemed to be in no hurry to lease the space again.
“Lester Group left that space open and vacant for a while with the intention of putting a chain into it,” Comaratta said.
Moe’s Southwest Grill, a nationwide chain with more than 300 locations, now occupies what used to be Crossroads. Moe’s is a subsidiary of a private firm that owns other eateries such as Carvel, Cinnabon and Auntie Anne’s.
No one with knowledge of the events at Lester Group could be reached for comment.
Today, Comaratta thinks that the town of Blacksburg remains on a path of rapid development.
He worries that some want to see Blacksburg “turned into Charlottesville” — a town that has experienced a great deal of commercial expansion, along with growth issues like traffic and a spike in the costs of living and doing business. Charlottesville’s cost of living is 7 percent higher than Blacksburg’s. Blacksburg is on par with the state average.
“A local upstart isn’t going to have a lot of loose capital to spend on exorbitant rent costs, and that’s where I think the town council is failing in Blacksburg,” Comaratta
Walker, who started a business in Charlotte prior to opening Cabo Fish Taco in Blacksburg, found it difficult to get started in Blacksburg.
“It took three times as long, and cost three times as much as it did in Charlotte,” Walker said.
He found that the Blacksburg health department and building inspectors were less willing to work with him than they were in North Carolina.
He also noted that there were costs associated with getting started in Blacksburg that are not always clear for new small businesses, though affordable for larger firms.
He and Comaratta agreed that infrastructure was an issue and that the town expects businesses to foot the bill for retrofitting aging structures.
“If you don’t have deep pockets, that’s not an easy thing to do,” Walker said.