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Pulaski Rising; SWVA Town Looks to the Arts for Revitalization

Adam Farris

These days, commercial districts in every town look much like the ones in every other town.  But in parts of southwestern Virginia that never attracted the national chains, it’s a different story.

In the town of Pulaski, where they might have missed out on the cookie cutter economic development that swept the country in recent decades, they’re now seizing a different opportunity to revitalize their town and preserve its old-fashioned charm at the same time. 

On a clear autumn morning the once grand buildings along Pulaski’s West Main street are showing their age in the bright sunlight. There’s an arts center, a pawn shop and the historic Pulaski Theatre, immaculate, as if they were swept clean moments ago, yet crumbling around the edges. A bright orange sign with the words’ Pulaski rising’ waves in the breeze.

When the theatre, which is on the register of National Historic Places, first opened in 1911 it hosted vaudeville acts and silent movies.

In those days, there was “…no electricity, no microphones or anything. The place is built like a huge megaphone,” says Jessica McKinney. She works  in the town's engineering department and also plays a roll in downtown revitalization efforts. She knows first-hand, the kind of charm a wonderful theater has for people.

“My parents met in the Pulaski Theatre, and they just celebrated their 51st anniversary,” she tells me.

McKinney cites a book by Richard Florida called “The Rise of the Creative Class” and how it transforms communities. “It’s all about the health of a down town district being active, brings a new generation of your professionals.  And it talks about how a vibrant theater is such a big part of downtown getting kicked off.”

Pulaski was once a prosperous railroad town, an industrial town, but like a lot of other places, as times, changed, it lost jobs and people and its stately old houses fell into disrepair. But this place also has some more permanent assets.

McKinney points out, "Pulaski is such a beautiful town, nestled up against the mountains, we have rivers and lakes.  There’s so much to do here, that people don’t know about, it’s like a little gem that’s waiting to be discovered again.” 

Actress, Emily Walter and Producer/Actress Robin Brooke are rehearsing for the upcoming performances of the play called, “Always... Patsy Cline.” Brooke lived in Florida and she visited Pulaski every year. She loves the four-season climate and the chance to see friends who live here.  She says, she “fell in love with this town, the houses, the vibe of this town. And (my friends would say, ‘Well, there’s not a lot going on here.’ But, I saw what it was somehow and I felt what it would be and it haunted me.”

Each time she visited she kept asking people, ‘Hey what’s going on with that old theatre?”

It hosted movie nights and bands, but no live theater. And with acoustics like few other theaters and that feeling that the grand old theatre needed her, Brook said she felt drawn here.

“That’s the only way I can put it.  And when I would say to my friends, ‘I’m going put live theatre in that theatre and they’d say Hmmmm. And then one, day I called them and said, ‘I bought a house in Pulaski' and they were like what?’

She bought a 1929 colonial with the original boiler and a bad roof. And she’s not the only one.  This town is full of magnificent buildings and homes with great bones, many in foreclosure, like Brook’s. And there’s been a recent uptick in sales.

Nichole Hair is Pulaski Deputy Town Manager and a cheerleader for what’s great about the town. That helped her attract nearly  7-hundred thousand dollars from the state to revitalize the downtown.

“Hey, come see me I’ll show you a home!” she chirps.

The money will, among other things, go to renovate 15 buildings on the block of West Main where the theater is, and it too, will have its façade restored.

A new restaurant recently opened and another’s on the way, there’s a new boutique hotel, and a schedule full of arts festivals, food truck Fridays, Iron Chef competitions and plenty of parking.

But, she says, “Our biggest challenge is that perception.” that Pulaski has declined. “You know, we’re our biggest critics. So, we’re asking for patience from our community to hang in there with us. It’s coming. The change is coming. It just takes time. Help us celebrate our successes.  We’re open to constructive criticism but be willing to jump in and be part of that change also.”

‘Always ...Pasty Cline,’ came together in 2 weeks, on a professional schedule with equity actors, a distinction that Brooke wants people to know, signals a high-quality production.

Thinking back on the months of work behind her, she says, “There’s a big hole in this area for this level of theatre. People have to drive pretty far to be here, so I want people to know that, there was a theatre person that literally picked up and moved to this town.”

Always… Patsy Cline New River Valley Regional Theatre returns to Pulaski Theatre with this fantastic production! Created and originally directed by Ted Swindley-based on a true story. A tuneful and memorable tribute, Patsy Cline’s rise to legendary stardom is told through the eyes of her... October 26 @ 7:00 pm - November 4 @ 2:00 pm

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People here say Brooke is a force of nature. She’s says this has been one of the most difficult things she’s ever done --and the most fun. And she’s determined to go on with more shows.”

“I’m bringing in a lot of my friends and my world here in the beginning, but we want to find out more about this region and this area. We are in Pulaski but we want to incorporate all of the New River valley.  The talents, the audience, everybody coming together, which will help this town too.”