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Toano native aims to revitalize town with mixed-use development

jojacobs@vagazette.com

Inside a former antique store is a vision of a more vibrant Toano, one that leans on the past to guide the future.

On a sunny August day, Jack Wray pored over photos and conceptual images of Toano Station from inside the former location of Everything Vintage in the 7800 block of Richmond Road.

Just across the street is what Wray hopes is the future location of Toano Station — a mixed-use commercial district complete with residences built on top of stores. The development would be the nucleus of a revived Toano, offering opportunities for small businesses and a reason for young people to stay in Toano, Wray said. He grew up in Toano attending Mount Vernon Church and is a general contractor in Charlottesville.

The concept is without comparison in Toano today. But the idea is less a dramatic shift and more a return to basics.

About a century ago, Toano was a bustling town. By 1910, Toano had a high school, a canning factory, hotels, banks, stores, its own newspaper and a barrel factory, which was the largest business between Richmond and Newport News.

Located at the in the middle of major roads and with a railroad line through town, Toano was a center of trade for the region in the early 20th century, said Fred Boelt, a local historian assisting Wray with the project.

All that changed when Route 60 was widened from two lanes to four lanes in the 1960s, a process that destroyed stores and buildings on Richmond Road, Toano’s main street. Unable to recover from the loss, Toano lost the sense of place that makes for a vibrant community, Boelt said.

“It was just a beautiful community. It was one of these deals where your parents sent you up the street to borrow sugar, butter, milk, eggs and if one person didn’t have it, you kept going until you got what you needed,” Wray said.

Wray thinks Toano Station could bring some of that essence back.

The way forward

Wray remembers watching Toano’s main street get torn down when he was a teenager — rebuilding will be a longer process than tearing it down was.

Wray and his brother, Jeff, have been buying up property in Toano for more than a decade, starting with his grandparents’ house in 2003. Since then, the brothers have accumulated a handful of properties — among them the Richmond Road building that previously held Everything Vintage and five nearby historic houses, as well as a parcel of land needed for Toano Station; Wray is in talks for additional parcels along Richmond Road, and he hopes to create a master plan for about two city blocks between Chickahominy Road and Church Lane.

Wray said the existing holdings are enough to give his vision its start, but money looms as a possible hurdle to the project. The houses are historical buildings he wants to restore, potentially paving the way for them to be occupied by businesses or bed and breakfast operations.

There are still other properties in town in need of a new lease on life. Though not in Wray’s possession, he would like to see the Gatewood House restored. The solid-brick house has been vacant for about 20 years, and was built by William Lawrence Gatewood, who pioneered reconstructive surgery for World War I veterans, according to the Toano Historical Society website.

The nonprofit group was founded by Wray and other people interested in preserving and revitalizing Toano.

Wray hopes to attract more people, and a little more money, to the project. A plan to create a historic district would open up tax credits, which could mitigate the cost of development as long as it stayed true to the town’s historical style.

Toano Historical Society submitted a nomination to create a Toano Commercial Historic District of 11 buildings on Richmond Road. If the Virginia Department of Historic Resources approves the nomination, property owners will be able to acquire federal and state tax credits to renovate their properties in a historically consistent way. Wray expects to learn whether the nomination is approved in December.

“Toano used to be a vibrant part of the county, and I'm excited to hear more about Mr. Wray's revitalization project as it moves forward,” Supervisor Sue Sadler wrote in an email. Sadler represents Stonehouse District, which includes Toano.

Taking root

Likely the first business to open would be the restaurant Wray wants to put in the former location of Everything Vintage. Inside the building is a mishmash of tables and chairs set up to give the feeling of a working restaurant.

There’s a family connection to the building. It’s where Wray’s grandfather operated a general store for about 50 years. The long, dark wood counter sitting in the building that will be used as a bar is recovered from a Lanexa store owned by Wray’s great-grandfather. Photos of the men sit in the building amid other mementos of Toano’s past on loan from the Friends of Forge Road and Toano: a baseball team uniform from Toano High School and still more photos of buildings long since torn down. Though a date hasn’t been determined, Wray wants to have a day where people bring with historic photos and documents come to the society to have those materials documented to help guide the project.

Wray is looking for an operator to run the restaurant. He isn’t sold on a specific cuisine, but believes an inexpensive, family-friendly restaurant would provide momentum for the overall project.

Just what kind of shops will populate Toano Station hasn’t been determined. Wray hopes to attract businesses such as cafes, small grocery stores and craft breweries.

“We’re trying to become an outstanding destination.”

Toano is strategically located near housing developments, and the town could capitalize on that with a greater commercial profile, Boelt said.

“We really have no commerce to support the housing areas,” he said. “I’m very enthusiastic about it. It’d be a shame for Toano to disappear.”

Local businessman David Nice is also involved with the project. He said the project could have a rejuvenating effect on Toano and hopes the community embraces the idea.

“We certainly hope it creates a small town atmosphere,” Nice said.

While most of land for Toano Station is in hand, it’s zoned for business use and therefore isn’t suitable for what Wray envisions. It would have to be rezoned as mixed-use. The rezoning needed for the entire Toano revitalization project is estimated to cost $150,000 to hire a lawyer and pay other fees to make a reality. The Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors would have to approve the zoning change needed for the development, which would require public hearings.

Wray declined to discuss cost estimates for construction of Toano Station, saying that with some property not yet acquired and the project being in a conceptual stage, it’s difficult to pin a price tag on it.

Wray’s vision hews closely to existing county design guidelines intended to preserve Toano’s community character, which the Board of Supervisors approved in 2006.

The guidelines for the Toano Community Character Area includes implementation strategies like establishing an historic district so property owners can take advantage of tax credits for redevelopment as well as the use of state and federal grants to improve the streetscape and a master plan developed by the public sector.

“The county has already said this is what we need,” Wray said.

Wray speculated that a similar effort hasn’t been undertaken because the Great Recession hit shortly after the plan was adopted. But with his properties as a starting point, and a little community support, Wray said Toano can be reborn.

“I started looking around and saying, ‘man, this little town could be put back together if things were done right.’ ”

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Wray doesn’t own the Gatewood house property.

For more information

Contact Jack Wray at jewray75@gmail.com.

Contact the Toano Historical Society at info@toanohistoricalsociety.org or visit toanohistoricalsociety.org.

Jacobs can be reached by phone at 757-298-6007.

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