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2015-02-25 / News

Rayon of Hope: Lessons in renewal on Jeff Davis

By Jim McConnell
STAFF WRITER


New starter homes off Fonda Street in Rayon Park, which is experiencing a rebirth of sorts. 
Ash Daniel/Chesterfield Observer New starter homes off Fonda Street in Rayon Park, which is experiencing a rebirth of sorts. Ash Daniel/Chesterfield Observer Rayon Park just may be eastern Chesterfield’s best-kept secret.

Unlike many well-heeled communities in the county’s northwest quadrant, there’s no sign or lush landscaping welcoming visitors at the entrance to the neighborhood.

Because it’s set well back from Jefferson Davis Highway – and tucked away between the mammoth Defense Supply Center Richmond and the award-winning Winchester Greens housing complex – it’s possible to drive from the county line to Chester and back several times without catching a glimpse.

Even using a smartphone’s GPS function offers no assistance. One recent, futile search attempt produced a digitized map of a small town in Mexico.

Clearly, Rayon Park’s working-class residents aren’t desperate for attention.

Nonetheless, they got it recently when Bill Dupler, a deputy county administrator, chronicled the neighborhood’s remarkable renaissance in a presentation to the Board of Supervisors.

All but given up for dead just a decade ago, Rayon Park now is a role model for county leaders’ efforts to revitalize a particularly depressed 6-mile stretch of the Jefferson Davis corridor.

“This is a very graphic example of the impact you can have on a neighborhood when you focus some infrastructure and community investment there,” Dupler said.

Since 2005, the neighborhood’s average property assessment has increased 219 percent from $60,000 to $132,800.

Private sector investment – meaning, new home building – has increased 283 percent during the same period.

There’s even new commercial development on the way: a 12,000-square foot retail center under construction on U.S. Route 1.

“A lot of people write off old neighborhoods,” said Paul Barr, a Chester-based homebuilder who built 15 houses in Rayon Park and still owns rental properties there. “Some of us saw what it could be.”

The possibilities weren’t always so endless.

Rayon Park, which was subdivided in 1929, initially was populated by workers at the nearby DuPont Spruance plant. Its name derives from the plant’s production of rayon, a synthetic fabric, to support American troops during World War II.

In the postwar years, though, only about a third of the 105-acre neighborhood’s lots were developed and accompanying infrastructure also remained woefully incomplete.

As the county’s population exploded and surged westward throughout the 1980s, and millions in local tax dollars were spent on building roads, schools and other infrastructure to support all the new homes, Rayon Park and other eastern Chesterfield communities were left behind.

By the late 1990s, massive septic system failures turned the neighborhood into an unsightly mess. Raw sewage backed up in residents’ yards, created health hazards and made it impossible for them to sell their aging properties.

Many homes were boarded up, abandoned and left to quietly collapse. Dupler recalled viewing a photo of one such house that had a large tree growing up through its roof.

Community leaders, however, refused to let the neighborhood die. Spurred on by two local groups, the Rayon Park Civic Association and the Jefferson Davis Association, the county government launched a project in 2006 to extend water and sewer service to Rayon Park.

Between federal grants and a donation of more than $100,000 from the Rayon Park Civic Association, the county raised about $2 million for the water/sewer project.

Before it was even finished, opportunistic builders started buying up vacant lots in Rayon Park for pennies on the dollar and applied for permits to put up new homes there. Abandoned, blighted homes were razed to make room for more new construction.

Barr, who grew up poor, acknowledged that there was some risk involved in building new homes in a downtrodden neighborhood. But he also said that he has never judged people by how much money they have.

“I looked at it as a chance to do something to help people out,” he added. “If I made some money on it, great, but that wasn’t my primary goal.”

Rayon Park, as it exists today, still isn’t an upscale community. There’s no clubhouse or pool. A few older brick bungalows, remnants of a bygone time, sit among newer two-story Colonial-style homes. One large abandoned house remains on the market, waiting for a buyer to renovate it or tear it down and build new.

But county leaders consider it a success story – and a blueprint for combating poverty and revitalizing several other aging eastern Chesterfield neighborhoods.

“We can’t afford to do them all at once,” said Midlothian District Supervisor Dan Gecker. “We have to do one piece at a time, but it’s going to happen.”

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