Martinsville’s uptown welcomes new business after COVID-19 peak
New businesses are filling the storefronts of Martinsville’s uptown. The small Southside Virginia city with a population of about 13,500 is experiencing an influx of locally owned and operated shops. According to the local chamber of commerce, 50 businesses have opened or expanded since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A parade of pampered pooches streamed through the doors at Barking Beauties, a dog grooming shop off Church Street. Co-owners Sierra Fulcher and Kellie Violante met while working at a corporate grooming shop. Fulcher said that, when the pandemic hit, “the regulations and restrictions that corporate had, put us in a restraint that we felt like it was best for us to move out and start our own business.”
Fulcher and Violante were pleased to join other entrepreneurs in opening businesses in uptown, which spans a few blocks in Martinsville’s central business district.
Another new business focuses on improving the health of Martinsville’s residents. Samantha Turner, a registered dietician, opened OakStone Health and Nutrition in 2021. She recognized a shortage of dietetic services in the community and hoped her skills could help address a rise in diet-related health issues.
“I think, during COVID, we learned a whole lot about health,” Turner said. “[We] saw a surge in unhealthy eating behaviors and also an increase in other chronic diseases, like heart disease and diabetes.”
Turner, like other new business owners in the area, relied on support she received from the Martinsville-Henry County Chamber of Commerce, which offers an eight-week mentoring and training program for entrepreneurs. Attendees learn business basics, like marketing, accounting and filing taxes.
Lisa Watkins, the chamber’s president, said the program offers new business owners support.
“They're able to network with other entrepreneurs,” said Watkins, who is also the executive director of the chamber’s Partnership for Economic Growth. “We're very fortunate… that our local government and private citizens are really putting their money where their mouth is in supporting entrepreneurship.”
Watkins said the pandemic offered people the opportunity to reevaluate their lives and careers.
“People had more time to themselves to focus on themselves and just decided, ‘I'm going to take a chance on me.’” Watkins said. “I think having that time to just reflect on the things that are really important, I think that has been what triggered people to start a business during COVID.”
Austin White was recently getting ready to launch Forever Young, a business that buys and sells gently used children’s clothing, toys and equipment.
It is White’s second attempt at opening a store in Martinsville.
“We actually owned another store just across the street,” White explained. He and his wife started an antique shop in November 2019 just prior to the pandemic. “We were in the store for about a month and a half when COVID hit. So, it was very hard.”
“We moved everything and then turned around and had to move everything right back out,” White said.
Despite the setback, the couple was able to get out of their lease for the shop and find other work.
They were preparing for their second child, so White and his wife visited a used children’s clothing store in Roanoke. He decided Martinsville needed something similar. He opened Forever Young on Nov. 1, making it uptown’s 50th business to open since the pandemic began.
Shatera Robertson was running a floral design and events business on the side while working as a full-time nurse prior to COVID-19.
“When COVID hit, my business came to a halt. The venues were closing down. People were getting delayed for their weddings,” Robertson said. “It was very devastating for a lot of brides and for a lot of people.”
Robertson worked in the emergency room throughout the pandemic. She started getting calls about floral design as venues began reopening and people hoped to reschedule their cancelled events.
“I was getting a lot of phone calls while being at work.” Robertson said. “When you’re nursing, you cannot answer phone calls. You’re just busy taking care of other people.”
She realized she wanted to turn her part-time passion into a full-time job. Robertson purchased a store front in uptown and started Unique Styles and Designs, a full-service, floral shop.
The chamber of commerce also offers a mentorship program for existing businesses looking to expand. During the pandemic, Robertson went through that program and attended a floral design school, so she could provide additional services at her store.
Robertson said her business is growing because of an influx of people uptown.
She opened her shop in June 2021. “We are getting more foot traffic,” Robertson said. “And so, I get a lot of business.”
Watkins, the chamber president, said many of the entrepreneurs are finding success, noting that 86% of the businesses that have opened during the pandemic are still open. The economic impact, she said, is “millions of dollars each year from the businesses collectively.”
She said she hopes increased traffic in Martinsville’s uptown will lead to further growth, including attracting larger manufacturing businesses that could bring more jobs.
“We hope that we can continue this trajectory to keep adding to our central business district,” Watkins said.