By Randy Arrington
LURAY, Feb. 19 — A little over six years ago, the Town of Luray found themselves between a rock and a hard place — more specifically, they got their abutment caught between a bridge and a building.
As the West Main Street Bridge continued to deteriorate (earning a rating of 32 on a scale of 100), the Luray Council made plans to replace the aging infrastructure that involved state and federal funding — and all of the “red tape” associated with such funds. There were mountains of paperwork, checking for special bat habitats and a lot of waiting on budgeting cycles tied to specific funds.
All in, the West Main Street Bridge project cost a little over $5 million with the Town paying about $950,000 (less than 20 percent). Those local funds include the October 2014 purchase of a 0.91-acre lot with Brown’s Restaurant and the Old Bridge Theater for $327,000.
“The foundation of the restaurant addition had been interconnected with the previous bridge’s foundation,” Town Manager Steve Burke stated in a request for information from Page Valley News.
After the completion of the bridge project in the summer of 2019, the Town tried to market the property, but its state of deterioration (especially the theater portion) would require a large investment on the part of any developer that took on the renovation.
“The Town has secured the second floor of the building through the installation of Plexiglas windows, conducted routine repairs, and cleaned the interior of the building. The Town also secured a grant from the Luray Downtown Initiative to paint the exterior of the building,” Burke stated in an email. “The Town has also constructed pedestrian improvements around the building associated with continued use of the Hawksbill Greenway during the bridge construction.”
The current assessment for the property is $296,000, but council members knew the property would not sell for that price because of the need for costly repairs.
“The Town has been marketing the property since early 2019. In April 2019, the Town issued an RFP for a Public-Private Partnership to renovate the building that did not receive any qualified responses,” Burke continued. “Recently, the Town has been working with Bill Dudley & Associates to market the property.”
The town marketed the building with a 0.25-acre site that includes permanent easements on the sides of the building for pedestrian improvements the Town constructed to allow continued public use. The Town wants to retain the parking lot associated with the property for continued public use for the greenway and shopping downtown, according to Burke.
On Dec. 7, 2020, the Town received a letter from the IBR Corporation stating their interest in reviving the property to create downtown long-term and short-term housing, as well as bringing back an eatery and downtown entertainment to the venue.
“We are writing to express and clarify our intentions behind our offer to purchase the property located at West 36 West Main Street,” reads the letter from Isaac George, an owner of IBR. “We have admired the building for decades and are motivated by the possibility of realizing its potential as a Main Street fixture, as well as, a significant source of tax revenue for the town while bringing the community together by meeting its need for dining establishments, housing and the performing arts.”
In its letter, George specifically outlines IBR’s plans for the property, including:
- “Convert the upper floor into long-term housing rentals that are both affordable and beautiful. Additionally, we will create creek-side vacation rentals, meeting the increasing demand of quality accommodations in town to keep tourist travelers overnight in Luray.”
- “Repair and rebuild the restaurant space previously occupied by Brown’s Restaurant and actively seek a restauranteur tenant or franchise, that would ideally be categorized as a “diner” serving breakfast, lunch and dinner including blue plate specials. We believe this type of dining would appeal to locals and tourists alike and would fill a vacancy that has been needed in this town for quite some time.”
- “Honor the Bridge Theater’s past while looking towards the future of Luray’s up and coming art scene. We will explore opportunities for partnerships and grants with arts organizations, both local and national that produce or present in the performing arts arena. We will seek to refurbish the theater so that it may serve to host performances including local and regional music, film and live theater.”
- “Restore and improve the building’s impressive facade to its former glory and create a landmark that compliments the successful re-construction of the Main Street Bridge.”
IBR offered the Town $50,000 for the property — more than 83 percent below the assessed value. However, the local agricultural giant started in 1993 defended its low bid on its second downtown property purchase in the past three years.
“We understand that our offer is below the asking price and have arrived at this figure based on the following rationale:
- Recent appraisals of our acquisitions on or near Main Street reflect a commercial value that is far below what the original sellers were/are asking.
- The overall condition of the property is quite poor, so we understand the task ahead of us and the financial investment that will be required to return it to the premiere Main Street building this town deserves. We are one of the few if not the only developer that is financially poised to complete a job like this one, but we must be prudent with our budgeting parameters.
“It is important to us that this transaction be a win, win for IBR and the Town of Luray and its citizens,” the IBR letter continued. “We know that future tax revenue will offset and even surpass with time, any immediate deficit the town assumes due to this transaction.”
On Monday, Feb. 8, the Luray Council voted unanimously to accept the offer of $50,000 for the 0.25-acre parcel and its buildings “as is.”
“I’m glad this is finally happening,” Councilman Ron Vickers said prior to the vote. “We’ve owned this building long enough.”
The building was first constructed in 1921 as Bridge Theater, with Brown’s Restaurant first opening in 1940. An addition was added in 1947. The Chu family, who sold the building to the Town in 2014, had operated the restaurant since the 1970s.
“When we purchased the building we had no choice,” Councilman Jerry Schiro said during the Feb. 8 meeting. “Could we have gotten it cheaper in condemnation? I’m not so sure we could have. At condemnation, we probably would have ended up paying somewhere close to fair market value…and also incurred legal expenses…so I’m not so sure we would have gotten it any cheaper.”
Schiro noted that the Town had not secured easements for use of the greenway at the property, or to preserve the parking lot on the parcel for public use, or to even maintain water and sewer lines on the site prior to purchasing the property.
“It was really a friendly condemnation,” said Councilman Ligon Webb, who served as town planner during the initial phases of the West Main Street Bridge project. “I felt it was a fair price at the time.”
“Our goal right now is to get the property back on the tax rolls, to get a use that’s conducive with downtown Luray. It’s clearly an anchor building for downtown Luray,” Schiro stated prior to the vote. “We need someone that has the resources and has a track record to do this for us. And I think IBR is the one to do that.”
Two speakers spoke in favor of the purchase during the Feb. 8 public hearing held prior to the vote. One written statement was submitted by Jim Turner of Mill Creek Crossroads, who offered the town $55,000 in a letter but submitted no formal bid on the property.
“You can see it’s deteriorating, and it’s kind of an embarrassment to me,” Mayor Jerry Dofflemyer said. “We need to do something.”
“Personally, after reading the letter from Mr. George, I think [IBR is] the perfect entity to buy this property,” Webb said. “It’s an exciting time for downtown Luray.”
In its resolution to approve the sale, the Town stated: “IBR Corporation has a long tradition of improving properties that they acquired that the Town feels will continue with their rehabilitation of the Browns Building to restore it as a contributing building to the vibrancy of Downtown Luray.”
According to the terms, the “Sale shall include restrictive covenants that 1) limit residential or short-term rental use to the top floor of the building and 2) excludes commercial uses such as adult-oriented entertainment, tattoo and body-piercings, pawnshops, gambling, and other uses better suited outside of the Downtown area.”
The Town’s existing debt of $292,000 minus the proceeds of the sale shall be financed through Blue Ridge Bank.