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STORE WARS: When Wal-Mart Comes To Town



Ashland, Virginia Main Street
photo courtesy Roseanne Groat Shalf
In many ways, Ashland is a cross-section of America; in many ways it is totally different with a character not duplicated anywhere else....Growth has caused changes, but I contend that our spirit, our sense of place, our belonging is still as viable today as in the past. - John Newell, former mayor

Early Ashland
Ashland has a rich history that gives it a sense of place unlike any other. Originally known as "Slash Cottage" for its wetlands (slash is an antiquated term for swamp), Ashland was a 19th century mineral springs resort and racecourse. Developed by the Richmond Fredericksburg and Potomac (RF&P) Railroad Company in the mid-1800s as a summer retreat, the town became the site of a Confederate cavalry training camp at the beginning of the Civil War. Later in the war, Ashland overflowed with refugees fleeing the fighting in Northern Virginia. Close to bankruptcy by the war's end, the town and the resort were saved when Randolph-Macon College decided to relocate the school from Boydton, Virginia to Ashland to attract potential students with its accessibility by train. By the turn of the century, the town was so successful that an electric streetcar line was built from Richmond to Ashland, which, along with the RF&P's Accomodation Train, helped the town develop further as a classic "streetcar suburb."

Ashland's downtown area is centered around the railroad track, where a turn-of-the-century business district still bustles. Most of the coveted Victorian residences along the railroad were built as summer homes for people from Richmond, located15 miles south. Today, the downtown is considered a national historic district.

Ashland, population 7200
Ashland Today
As Ashland changes with the times, it also offers a cross-section of suburban America. In the 2000 presidential election, Ashlanders divided their votes between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore. The town is evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, despite the fact that surrounding areas are decidedly Republican. Since 1980, the population has increased by 40 percent to 7,200 in 2000. The ethnic diversity of Ashland is on the rise. In the past decade, nearly 500 African Americans have been annexed into town. Ashland is also a place that varies socioeconomically, as evidenced by the presence of housing of all income levels, including historical homes, bungalows, mobile homes and multi-family developments.

Ashland's proximity to Interstate 95 has increased both traffic and population, and the downtown district no longer is the town's main source of goods and services. Instead, most Ashlanders have turned to shopping centers and malls on the outskirts of town. Townspeople have fought to keep Ashland a habitable and accessible place in the midst of inevitable development. A little less than half of Ashland's 4.02 square miles is developed, primarily in single family residences, and over 12 per cent of the land is devoted to community and non-profit institutions, such as schools, churches, and the college - an unusually large amount of tax-exempt land for a small town. Ashland is pedestrian-oriented, a place where people can easily travel by foot and by bicycle.

Rosie Shalf
Rosie Shalf, historian
Changing with the Times
Ashland continues to struggle to adapt to the changes that development brings. When a commercial area between Route One and the Interstate developed, it was referred to as the "messy mile," an eyesore that didn't mesh with the quaint, historic town. To integrate the area more into the town, curbs and a gutter, as well as trees and landscaping were added, transforming just another turn-off on the Interstate to part of the town.

The Ashland town council has always been known to fight to preserve the town's character. When the federal government wanted to move the post office to a new building to the edge of town, residents protested loudly that they like their post office in the historic downtown area, where downtown businesses, older people and college students can easily walk to it. The postal service relented, and Ashland's post office remains downtown today. The town council also got Amtrak to renew passenger service directly from Ashland. It is the only town in American where you can board the train on Main Street and travel all the way up the East Coast.

"Without ignoring what was going on in the world and nation around her...Ashland's virtue has been in refusing to become impersonal," writes town historian Rosie Shalf. But facing considerable growth pressure from Richmond as a result of the approximately 100,000 people a day that pass by on the highway, what remains to be seen is whether Ashland will be able to fight sprawl in the future and retain the intimacy and character of a small town.

Story | Small Towns | Big Stores | Sprawl
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