A rural city bets on water access and landscape amenities as the keys to economic revitalization.
By Kim O’Connell
Throughout its history, Danville, Virginia, has been a pass-through city—a place where people and products were often headed someplace else. Located on the North Carolina border, this small industrial city is bifurcated by the Dan River but remains largely cut off from it.
During the Civil War, Danville was a railroad hub moving soldiers and supplies for the Confederacy. A postwar industrial boom, fueled by textile mills and tobacco production, lasted well into the 20th century. In recent decades, those industries dried up or moved elsewhere, leaving Danville with economic losses, a stagnant population, and a moribund urban core. A new riverfront park, now under construction, is poised to change all that.
Using public and private funds, the city has invested in a prominent land parcel where Main Street crosses the Dan, connecting the city’s two halves. Designed by Site Collaborative—a firm based in Danville and Raleigh, North Carolina— the four-acre Riverfront Park will provide access for paddlers and fishers, play structures, seating areas, an elevated river overlook, and rock-climbing walls. Danville is at a geographic crossroads as well, located on the edge between the Virginia Piedmont and the coastal plain, a province of rocky rapids and falls. Adjacent to the park will be a six-acre white water park, with a watercourse created from an old millrace and gravity-fed by the Dan River, that will be among the few of its kind in the United States.
“One of the main drivers was to get people to touch the water and engage with the water,” says Graham Smith, ASLA, the president of Site Collaborative. “Riverfront Park is already a catalyst for the city rethinking parks in general. If you talk to the city manager, he now talks about parks being important to driving the wellness of the community.”
The river may soon be more natural, too. In 2022, the city council voted to remove a hydraulic dam built in 1894 to power adjacent mills, since it serves no economic purpose and creates hazardous conditions downstream. Proponents argued that increased recreational usage with the coming park demanded a safer and more ecologically sound river. “We needed that premier urban space,” says Danville Parks and Recreation Director Bill Sgrinia. “We do have a community space downtown with an amphitheater, but we didn’t have anything that took advantage of the river.”
The park is set to open in mid-2024, with the white water canal likely following a couple of years later. “They talk about Danville being the comeback city,” Smith says, “and I think that’s right.”