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New life for a landmark

South Boston News / March 17, 2014
Thursday’s ribbon cutting at the New Brick Historic Lofts will mark the beginning of a new life for a downtown South Boston landmark, the last tobacco warehouse in Halifax County still standing.

Tommy Nelson, son of the former owners of the New Brick Tobacco Warehouse, said he’s thrilled to see the transformation of the old family business.

“It’s turned out really nicely” with the adaptation of the building as upscale apartments. “My mother is really, really pleased. And I think it’s important to the community …. I know my mother wanted it preserved.”

The Nelson family is inextricably linked with the New Brick warehouse, which closed in the early part of the previous decade with the end of the federal tobacco program. Its demise was part of a wave of warehouse closings as cigarette makers took direct control of the sale and marketing of the golden leaf.

Unlike most warehouses, though, the New Brick attracted enough interest to avoid the wrecking ball. The commitment to keeping it intact, said Nelson, started with his family.

He credits the New Brick’s survival to his mother, Doris, who inherited the business from her husband, longtime owner-operator T.P. Nelson Jr., upon his death in 1996; and his uncle, late South Boston attorney Chandler Nelson. After T.P. Nelson passed away, the New Brick continued to operate for several years in concert with the Planters Warehouse across the street.

By the early 2000s, with the warehousing era on its way out and the building falling into disrepair, something needed to be done. The family hoped to avoid an inglorious end for the New Brick, which had been built in the late 1920s, according to an old deed. The business had operated continuously since that time.

The Nelsons’ solution: donate the building to the town. It later ended up in the hands of Destination Downtown, the Main Street Virginia redevelopment program headed by Tamrya Vest. Thus began a search for a developer that led to Rehab Development, a Winston-Salem, N.C.-based firm with previous experience with the renewal of Danville’s warehouse district.

“Working with Preservation Virginia and the town government, the Main Street organization found a developer who was able to preserve the building and rehabilitate it for market rate downtown housing, which is in short supply in South Boston,” Vest stated. The result: the $3 million New Brick Historic Lofts, 27 new, market-rate housing units added to downtown that preserve “a piece of architectural tobacco heritage that is unique and authentic to South Boston.”

Key to the project’s success was Rehab Development’s ability to secure historic tax credits for the restoration work — similar to how revenue stream was found to pay for the transformation of The Prizery, the Southern Virginia Higher Education, and the Taylor Lofts apartment complex.

The Town of South Boston extended a 20-year, no-interest $185,000 loan on the condition that Rehab Development invest at least $2.5 million, and town helped resolve some parking issues. Destination Downtown secured a $25,000 downtown improvement grant to help with the planning.

The aim is to “always strive toward a walkable downtown where you can live — wake up with no grass to mow, walk over to get your coffee, walk to work (or have a shorter drive to work). You can even catch dinner and a show without ever having to get in your car,” wrote Vest in applying for an award from the Virginia Economic Developers Association.

“Downtown living puts feet on the street with a vibrant and healthy downtown playing an extremely important role in our regional economy and identity.”

The group was impressed: Destination Downtown will receive top honors from CEDA at an upcoming presentation.

But awards aside, supporters and instigators of the warehouse rescue say the most gratifying aspect of the project is seeing the expansive structure returned to good use.

“We have nothing but fond memories of the New Brick Warehouse,” said Tommy Nelson, son of the last owner-operator and great-grandson of the business founder, A.H. “Anderson” Nelson. “It was a way of life for us…. It was just a given. I knew years and years ago, when the whole climate with tobacco changed up, that what we would do with that building would be a challenge.

“But my mother was very sincere in wanting to do something that would be a lasting tribute to the community,” he added.

“I give them a lot of credit for connecting the dots and getting Rehab Development in here. They’ve transformed the building in a pretty special way.”

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