Fries bills itself as the town at the start of the New River Trail but the Commonwealth of Virginia’s web site for Virginia State Parks considers 5.5 mile stretch that runs from Fries a “branch” of the main trail that it says runs 51.5 miles from Galax to Pulaski.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons why Galax’s downtown is health and booming — even in these tough economic times — and Fries — like so many downtowns throughout the area — is a shell of its former self.

I rode through Fries the other day and found the town a far cry from the bustling community I remembered from my youth. The short stretch of buildings that comprises the communities “downtown” is marked by empty storefronts and one space with a sign that declares the building “uninhabitable.”  The Post Office and a BB&T bank branch were open but the barber shop and a salon were closed. The scene bears little resemblance to the out-dated photo of downtown that appears on the Fries web site.

The town’s web site lists just two places for shopping: A Dollar General on the edge of town and the Back Porch Gallery on Main Street but that shop’s space sits empty and a faded architect’s drawing is taped to the dirty windows.

The Chestnut Creek School of the Arts in Galax

Travel 5.5 miles down the road and you find Galax, the town that straddles the Carroll and Grayson County lines and a community with a bustling downtown and an international reputation from the annual Old Fiddler’s Convention.

There’s a sense of life and excitement in downtown Galax, something you don’t find in many central business districts these days.

I stopped in at the Chestnut Creek School of the Arts in Galax, a thriving arts school run by Chris Shackleford, the former educational director at the Jacksonville Center in Floyd.

Chris gave me a tour and discussed the current program musical program where the school provided students from nearby school with instruments and instruction.

A glance at the calendar shows a schedule crammed with events and programs.

Chris is the founding director of the Chestnut Creek School, which serves as a focal point in downtown and her success there is a testament to what can happen with community and government support and a board that allows a creative talent the freedom to do her job.

Meanwhile, the Jacksonville Center in Floyd continues to struggle, narrowly avoiding financial ruin as it meanders from grant to grant without a clear vision for the future or consistent support from the community or local government.

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