The Story of Chatham First

Chatham First was established in August 1998 by a group of civic minded individuals interested in working on initiatives to improve the quality of life in Chatham and the adjacent community.  It was chartered as a 501c 3 charitable corporation. The chartering resolution described the group as  “residents interested in rejuvenation of the Town of Chatham ” and lists the mission as “encouraging  opportunities for the public, in general, and organizations, in particular, toward meaningful participation in economic revitalization and historic preservation.”  

One of the first meaningful actions by the organization was the establishment of a formal Chatham Historical District. This designation allowed renovation within the area to benefit from various programs and tax credits. During the early years the organization’s focus largely involved seeking opportunities to support local businesses and working to   provide community events that might attract people into town. Chatham First sponsored gatherings such as wine festivals and assisted with Christmas in Historic Chatham, an event then under the sponsorship of the Pittsylvania Historical Society. From about 2000 to 2005 the organization sponsored an annual horse show at Chatham Hall. The show served as a primary fund raiser through ticket, food, and beverage sales managed by Chatham First members.

During the early-2000’s Chatham First became involved in its first effort to help bring important services to the community. A need for local rehabilitation and nursing home care was identified. Surveys by the state justified additional space in the region. Chatham First lobbied local and state representatives for a facility to be located in Chatham. After a long and intricate process, approval was granted resulting in establishing the Chatham Health and Rehabilitation Center in 2009.

With the success in attracting the care facility, the organization turned its efforts to other community needs. The annual Christmas in Historic Chatham was in decline. The historical society wanted to give up the event and asked Chatham First if they would be willing to take it over. At that time the celebration was essentially a daytime event featuring vendors, caroling, and people in colonial dress. Chatham First agreed to take over the event and reformatted it into the current weekend events featuring a community evening of local groups with candlelight caroling followed by weekend concerts.

From its inception, Chatham First worked to revitalize the town and eliminate derelict buildings within the Historic District. In 2004, the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors was considering moving the county offices out of town. Due to the possible economic impact to the town, Chatham First lobbied in opposition to this move and in the process unknowingly began its first revitalization effort. The old 1925 Chatham Elementary School building on South Main Street had been empty since the 1970’s and had fallen into disrepair. Chatham First proposed using it as a possible site for new county offices. This concept was ultimately rejected as being too costly, the building remained empty, but county offices remained in town.  About 2010 and faced with several derelict school buildings in the county, the supervisors moved to sell the building. Chatham First members prevailed on the supervisors to allow them to try to find a developer for the property. Bill and Mary Lee Black had recently seen similar properties renovated into living spaces and connections were made with a developer. Through extended efforts and cooperation by the club, town , and the county the property was eventually sold to a developer who used historic district tax credits to buy and renovate the building into apartments. It is now known as Chatham Lofts.

In 2009, at the urging of concerned local citizens over the appearance of the town, the Chatham Town Council approved funding of a study by VA Tech to develop a beautification plan for the town.  This plan was completed in 2010 and went on to serve as the basis for many aesthetic efforts in town by Chatham First. The seasonal banners, summertime flower baskets, Christmas greenery, and several landscape beds are largely a result of efforts to implement parts of the plan.

The town beautification plan was also the basis for seeking and obtaining foundation grants. The organization used these to improve the town. An early effort involved upgrades to Francis Hurt Park.  Chatham First was instrumental in adding a tot lot for children, developing a walking trail through the park to the fire station, installing interpretative signage for the Historical Society’s relocated tobacco barn and Cherrystone Spring, adding a dog watering station, adding directional signs, and repainting existing park structures.

During 2014 Chatham First took on what was to be to date its largest single project. The project would ultimately redefine the organization in the minds of the public and set the tone for a broader mission for the group. That project was Competition Alley. For some years there had been interest in trying to preserve the gravel drive that was the last remaining street from the years 1807-1852 when the town was named Competition. During this time, Mr. Lestar Martin, a professor of architecture at Louisiana Tech was residing in town to be near family on the faculty at Hargrave. He was active in Chatham First and became interested in the project. Mr. Martin developed a concept to develop the alley into a local venue with an educational aspect related to county history and its five court houses. Sketches of the concept were produced. In September a local citizen issued a challenge to match the funding that Chatham First could raise, up to $50,000, providing the money was raised by the end of December. Chatham First organized and hosted a community event at Simpson Funeral Museum to market the idea of developing the alley. Local citizens, businesses and foundations were invited. Ultimately about $110,000 was raised. Chatham First members worked with the concept to complete a more functional design, designed the ironwork and gazebo, and helped oversee the construction. In August 2015, the alley was dedicated.  It has since become a landmark and popular spot in town. It hosts the summer farmers market, has been a party venue, and is a comfortable spot for local people to simply visit and relax.

During 2016-2017 Chatham First was able to deal with another derelict structure and turn and unattractive area into an attractive small park. Giles Gateway Corner, at the intersection of Depot and Main Streets, was a project to eliminate a major eyesore, one which commanded a significant view entering town from the south. A donation from a local citizen allowed Chatham First to purchase the site. The town of Chatham demolished the old structure and cleared the site.  Chatham First then  raised funds to construct the park. The primary design was developed by Chatham members using ideas from the alley and seeking inclusion of features to make the two areas compatible. Through a grant from Danville Regional Foundation, donors, and Chatham First, the area was completed at a cost of about $39,000 in May 2017.

In 2007 the organization began sponsoring the Chatham Concert Series. The program, developed by VA Tech and the Roanoke Symphony was structured to bring increased offerings in the arts to small rural communities in southwest Virginia. Typically the program includes four to five concerts per season. Most performances are held at Emanuel Episcopal Church. The concerts are free and open to the public. Chatham First helps fund the series, provides promotional services, and hosts receptions after the events during which the artists and concert attendees can socialize.

Since its inception, Chatham First has evolved and adapted to various needs in the community. It membership has grown and is more diverse. This has allowed for a variety of new efforts and projects including; Competition Alley Farmers Market, a butterfly garden and community herb garden. Improved community visibility has attracted new members and allowed an increased budget which can provide for marketing and public relations programs to better serve the organization and local businesses.