It’s hard not to snicker at the mention of Grundy, a small town of just over 1,000 residents tucked in the mountains of far southwest Virginia.
But given the difficulties Grundy has experienced over the past century, one can understand how the sometimes mean-spirited moniker of “Grungy” arose from more than just wordplay.
As with hundreds of other Appalachian hamlets, Grundy’s fortunes have fortunes have waxed and waned with those of the coal mining industry for more than 150 years. But nature has proven to be its biggest nemesis.
Grundy’s mountain-constrained location adjacent to the Levisa Fork River makes it vulnerable to flooding, with nine major events having occurred since 1929. The April 1977 flood, a 100-year event, dealt the harshest blow to the Grundy’s gritty resilience, with many businesses abandoning the downtown area for good, and exacerbating the town’s demographic aging and economic decline.
But thanks to a decade-long, $300 million public-private effort that has involved nearly every engineering and construction discipline imaginable, Grundy is poised to finally rise above its adversity, both literally and figuratively.
The foundation for Grundy’s rebirth was a flood protection strategy developed and implemented by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in collaboration with local and regional development authorities, the Virginia Department of Transportation, and the Norfolk Southern Railroad. The strategy included blasting a 13-acre redevelopment site out of a mountain across the river to make room for new businesses as well as those displaced by a new 800-foot ringwall levee system that was completed in 2005.
The levee also provides a high and dry foundation above the 1977 flood elevation for a newly widened U.S. Route 460, Grundy’s primary highway link to the outside world. The second phase of the widening project will be completed next fall.
Although defining beginning and end points of economic cycles is difficult in Appalachia, commercial construction jobs have been plentiful in Grundy over the past few years. At the redevelopment site, known as Grundy Plaza, Wal-Mart will soon occupy a new 109,000 store located atop a two-story parking garage. Other buildings currently rising at the site will house a variety of retailers, the Grundy Police Department, and a local company’s headquarters. More construction for an even wider mix of retail and business tenants are expected to follow.
Yet defying the retail migration story that has played out in other rural towns, the emergence of a stylish mixed-use hub across the river may not doom Grundy’s original downtown. Now protected by the floodwall, many buildings alongside the Buchanan County Courthouse are being reborn through renovation, with a long-neglected grocery store next in line for revival.
The emergence of Grundy’s new downtown, which can be tracked at RaisingGrundy.com, complements the town’s 15-year transition from coal-centric community to advanced educational center, with the addition of the Appalachian School of Law and the Appalachian College of Pharmacy.
Though Grundy may never shake the snickers associated with its name, there’s little doubt that this ten-year and counting burst of construction energy has dramatically altered both the town’s prospects and its sense of self.
In other words, Grundy appears to now have a future as well as a past.