Made in Virginia

by Andrea Brunais

The town of Buchanan, Virginia, recently earned international attention in the tourism industry. Fodor's, the authority on world travel, named it one of the 10 best places in the U.S. to buy antiques.

How did Buchanan's smattering of antique stores—not dissimilar from those in other small Virginia towns—vault the town to such high visibility? It may be no coincidence that two generations of Virginia Tech students have helped the town achieve star status.

Last year, Mary Zirkle, who earned a master of urban and regional planning at Virginia Tech in 2003, became Buchanan's first town manager in its 200-plus-year existence. And Community Revitalization Manager Harry Gleason (horticulture '89) has devoted his entire career—more than 20 years—to the town. In fact, he began working for the town while still a student in Blacksburg.

Ask Gleason for memories, and he mentions the James River. When the picturesque river that runs along the edge of town spilled over its banks in 1985, the floodwater devastated parts of downtown and also ravaged residents' morale. After the flood, the town turned to Virginia Tech's Community Design Assistance Center for help.

During his graduate studies in landscape architecture in the mid-1990s, Gleason worked on the center's project to spiff up downtown businesses and, in 1995, stepped into a newly created town role to address revitalization. Gleason's dogged efforts to promote downtown Buchanan, along with help from a cadre of town volunteers, eventually built the town's reputation as an antiques mecca. And for more than 10 years in Buchanan, Gleason has hosted landscape architecture students to discuss how they can enter the field.

Recently, an even younger set of Virginia Tech students stormed the town. As part of Diane Zahm's urban affairs and planning studio class in the School of Public and International Affairs, graduate students from the College of Architecture and Urban Studies conducted field work in spring 2015 to help Zirkle make vital updates to the town's comprehensive plan.

Among other goals, students were looking to create "some type of new economic development that can change the whole scheme of what's happening there and can draw in more people," said Tara Reel, a graduate student in urban planning and public administration who participated in the class project.

Andrea Brunais is the communications director for Outreach and International Affairs.