downtown oddity

Brent Finnegan -- March 27th, 2007

For years I’ve wondered what that platform thing on Graham Street next to Calhoun’s and the CST was for. It appears to be a terrace/dining platform with no way to get up on it. None of my friends knew either.

After doing a little research, I found out that it was designed and built as part of an asphalt park which included space for the farmers market. The tower was to serve as the entrance into the market place. There were supposed to be stairs to the top. However, the farmers couldn’t use it, because there wasn’t enough space for their wares, and the number of marketers had grown. Apparently all those plans were made without confirming with the farmers how much space they needed. So the structure was never completed, and the farmers went on selling stuff in the parking deck.

And there it stands today, curious, interesting, but inaccessible.

This should be an open thread for ideas on what to do with it.

Bungee swing, anyone?

29 Responses to “downtown oddity”

  1. Del Marvel says:

    I’ve heard it described as Deskins’ Phallic Folly (or something like that) It probably cost six figures to build that thing. That goes back to the “good ole boys” days when this character Jim Deskins was running the HRHA like his own personal fiefdom. (it’s an unelected position) Part of his personal plan for Court Square Theater was for it to be a “little Branson” that would book big name country artists and he didn’t listen to any advice from anyone who knew anything about that either. The Valley Players were supposed to be part of the theater originally but Deskins gave them the shaft. For years when you called Court Square Theater, you rang through to the housing authority. Deskins was personally involved in booking bands that would play to empty houses. The city also expected CST to be the home of Shenandoah Shakespeare Express but they skipped town for a better deal in Staunton not that long after it was built.

  2. Interesting..I never knew any of this. it’s really a beautiful structure and it wouldn’t take much to make it accessable. It’s owned by the city? It would be a great feature for Calhouns to have. I was photographing a wedding there last weekend and desparately wanted to get on it!

  3. zen says:

    I was afraid it had something to do with public executions. Glad I was wrong.

  4. Josh says:


    No, the gallows were closer to the courthouse (no joke).

  5. Frank Witt says:

    Very interesting ! Never noticed that there are no stairs. I will drive by today, just to check it out and be in “awe” of a total “so far” waste of money !

  6. zen says:

    Surely it wouldn’t cost much to put up some stairs to reach the platform. But what would the view provide?

  7. finnegan says:

    Perhaps the HPD could use it as a watchtower of some sort.

  8. TM says:

    I assumed it was accessible at one point. Guess I was wrong. I agree with Christa. Rather than steps from the ground up, couldn’t Calhoun’s build a walkway from their banquet room to the structure?

  9. finnegan says:

    That would be great. I’d eat and drink out there.

  10. finnegan says:

    Del, didn’t Jim Deskins move up to Winchester and took some similar position there? I think he’s still there.

  11. David Troyer says:

    can we say secret fortress hideout? I’ve always wanted to throw a grappling hook over, climb up and have a camp out up there.

  12. Yep, he’s in the same position for the City of Winchester. Poor folks.

  13. TM says:

    Can we have the next conversation night up there? If so, can we call it The Hburgnews Dark Tower? I’m referencing the light-up electronic fantasy board game… not the Stephen King book.

  14. finnegan says:

    I think David T and TM are onto something here.

  15. Nobody answered if it was city property. Or did I miss it?

  16. finnegan says:

    I’m pretty sure it belongs to the city. I’m working on confirming that, Christa.

  17. JGFitzgerald says:

    The Housing Authority bought it with a loan from the city, but the city is forgiving the ten-year loan on a year-by-year basis, and the thing is run by a subcommittee of the Arts Council of the Valley. The city forgiving the loan allows the Housing Authority to focus on, wait for it, housing. But it’s not really that simple.

  18. So, the city owns it, not the Housing Authority

  19. JGFitzgerald says:

    City’s paying for it, Housing Authority owns it. City’s not actually paying for it, just forgiving the loan. Every year for ten years. Trust me, we did all this with a straight face. Housing Authority doesn’t run it though. I’m not trying to make this complicated — it’s just that kind of story.

  20. Well, it sounds like a mess to me. How much did the city “forgive”?

  21. JGFitzgerald says:

    About three-quarters of a million. But that’s sort of a guess.

  22. zen says:

    So it’s a monument to bureaucracy?

  23. JGFitzgerald says:

    The way it was done is a towering monument to the fact that if you want to do something good in local government, you have to mask it. For instance, if you renovate a house in Old Town and go from rental to single-family, your tax rates aren’t supposed to go up for seven years despite the presumed increase in value. The idea is to encourage people to buy student rentals and make them liveable. But it’s couched as a historical preservation measure, because that’s what the law allows.

    Likewise, the twisted, bureaucratic way the theater was funded was necessary because that’s what the law would let us do. The reason for the action, and for the downtown arts district, and for the grants to OASIS, was to encourage a type of development downtown that could support itself without being wiped out by the next Wal-Mart.

    The city is probably still giving 50K or so a year to downtown, if not twice that. It’s to pay for quality of life. But that’s not a line item in the municipal budget, so you call it something else and do it some other way. Government can do good — but if it made sense, we might like it too much.

  24. Del Marvel says:

    Another interesting anecdote from someone who worked for Deskins at CST back in the day: He was into Machiavelli and would talk about himself in the third person referring to himself as “The Prince.” I also appreciate Joe F’s insight and thanks for everything you did. But I still don’t understood how the city had 400, 800 grand, whatever, sunk into that theater and Deskins was by all reports personally mismanaging the place for years including screaming at people that it was his theater and he could do whatever he wanted. Was that all neccesitated by the twisted bureaucracy? Couldn’t there have been a board of directors appointed from the get go?

    By the way, any idea what’s going to happen when that ten years is up, (fairly soon I believe) and the debt is forgiven. Will HRHA still give the arts council free rent on the theater?

    Also Joe, maybe you could give us your nutshell take on what the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority is exactly, what powers it has, what it does, how much control there is by the city, etc. For starters, under Deskins at least the head of the Authority seemed to have an awful lot of power for an unelected position.

  25. JGFitzgerald says:

    City had money sunk in it and Deskins still ran it like a fief? Not that cut and dried. The situation I described came at the end of Deskins’ time as executive director of HRHA, not during it. The Authority itself is a board, and the exec works for them. The Authority is a creature of the state, but appointed by the local council. Deskins liked big projects. Some worked better than others. Mike Wong, his successor, is more into housing initiatives. I could go into detail, but much of what I knew, emphasis on past tense, is dated by time and memory.

    Projects can happen in different ways. The city paid to renovate Simms, but HRHA arranged it and raised half the money. The theater was going to be paid for by revenues paying back a city loan. That didn’t work out so well. One former mayor had the HRHA involved somehow in trying to help out his business, although the actual loan would have come through the Industrial Developmental Authority.

    The actions of HRHA, IDA, and other Authorities and quasi-governmental organizations are rarely straightforward. They’re not designed to be. They’re how local governments get around things, although one is not supposed to say that out loud. Their value depends on who runs them. Downtown Renaissance works because Eddie Bumbaugh is a good man. If the next director gets the job because he’s a crony of the next mayor, then the group won’t work so well.

    Hope you didn’t want a simple answer.

  26. I’m one of the locals that decided to renovate my building downtown. I have learned so much in the last several months. Eddie has helped me so much…you cannot even imagine, but it has all been terribly overwhelming. I still have a lot to learn. I had the city come by recently and what is remarkable is that I don’t have to pay taxes on the inprovements for 5 years.I think someone mentioned 7 earlier? I can borrow $25,000 government money for 0% as long as I have a loan already in place for the improvements, which I do. I have to do everything by the book though in order to receive historic tax credits. Like $89,000 worth of them, which I just intend to sell. I would love to talk to someone who knows more about this. iIm still a little unclear of how it works. It’s been really tough to run my business plus deal with building apartments. I’m just happy they are all rented now. Anyone interested in buying tax credits??

  27. linz says:

    I think we should turn it into the best “tree fort” ever.

  28. Renee says:

    @zen – haha hilarious.

    @linz – sounds good to me!

    Overall, I’d have to agree with the idea of creating another outdoor patio for Calhoun’s.

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