Downtown Danville was rebranded as the River District.

Who would have thought, just 15 years or so ago, that Danville’s historic downtown would emerge as a destination point for local residents, in addition to visitors? Who could have envisioned the empty tobacco warehouses on and around Craghead Street or Dan River’s iconic, but abandoned, White Mill the center of an emerging Danville of the 21st century? And the stunning Danville Family YMCA? Who indeed.

But that’s exactly what’s happening today, and it’s happening at a much quicker pace than many people thought possible just a few years ago.

There’s a common thread, if you will, running through and connecting these projects that’s unique to Danville, the so-called River City: the mighty Dan River.

The Dan, like the James River, was the interstate highway of the tobacco era of the city’s business history. It powered the rise of Dan River Mills to supremacy in the national textiles industry. And, as city and civic leaders work to create the Danville of the 21st century, it will be the focal point of the rejuvenated city.

With Craghead Street quickly becoming the focal point of historic renovations, new business activity and new urban living settings, the Dan has become all the more important to the city’s overall picture of what we could become. A major part of the remake is the riverfront park city officials are in the middle of planning and raising money for. When built and open to the public, it will be the crown jewel of Danville’s new downtown.

The project is estimated to cost approximately $10.1 million; the city has more than half of that in hand or pledged already, including major funding in the form of a $4 million grant from the Danville Regional Foundation. The city has also dedicated $1.3 million of its settlement from Duke Energy over the devastating 2014 coal ash spill in the Dan River to the project.

The park will encompass about 4 acres along Main Street and Memorial Drive between the White Mill site and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Bridge. Preliminary plans include a street-level entrance on the southeast portion of the property, opening up into a water feature that could include an interactive fountain and a spray pad for children. Also featured would be a staging area for performance events and an elevated walkway over the park and a part of the Dan, about 20 to 25 feet above the river. Green space would feature prominently in the park, which would intertwine and connect with the popular Riverwalk Trail.

Danville is fortunate — blessed, really — to have been built on the banks of the Dan. The river’s always been an economic engine in the city’s past, and it can continue to play that role well into the future, if we’re smart about taking advantage of it.

Just look to a city to the south for an example of smart planning that has created one of the great small cities in America: Greenville, S.C.

The relationship between Greenville and the Reedy River is much like that between Danville and the Dan. The river was a main feature for the rise of the city in the mid-19th century and the mills that powered it economically into the 20th century. As the city reinvented itself over the last 20 years, the Reedy came to occupy a prominent spot in the city’s rebirth with Falls Park built along the river as it snakes through the city. From art museums and music venues to Furman University, Greenville of 2019 is a far cry from the Greenville of the 1970s and 1980s.

And that could be Danville, too.

The Danville museum, the Old North theater, the historic Craghead district, Averett University, the new YMCA — the elements are all in place for Danville. There just needs to be a thread connecting these disparate parts into a single, prominent element.

The riverfront park could — and should — be that thread, perhaps even playing off the Dan River Mills textile connection. There is a great deal of potential in this city, potential that some of us might not even realize exists. With land acquisition, the total estimated cost of the riverfront park is $11.1 million. The city is looking at any and all sources of money, including foundations, corporations and private individuals.

The Dan helped make the Danville of the past; with solid planning and community backing, it could help create the Danville of the future, too.

— The Editorial Board, the Danville Register & Bee

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