By Jeremiah Knupp, senior contributor
After spending ten months on the market, the Daily News-Record building at 231 South Liberty Street is under contract. The pending sale, to Matchbox Realty & Management LLC, could see the historic building join the growing list of downtown structures being repurposed as commercial and retail space – while continuing to house the DN-R.
Constructed in 1941 when the newspaper moved its operations from the Keezell Building on South Main Street, the South Liberty building has been added to several times over the years. It currently covers 34,000 square feet on two acres. While the sale price for the property is not yet public, the city’s most recent tax assessment valued the property at just over four million dollars.
The contracted purchaser for the property is Matchbox Realty & Management, LLC. CEO Barry Kelley has been involved in re-developing many downtown properties, including the neighboring 217 South Liberty property that formerly housed the Casco Ice facility and the former warehouse at 56 West Gay Street that is now the City Exchange apartments.
Michael Hendricksen, chief operations officer at Matchbox, said that closing the sale contract is contingent on the city approving a rezoning of the property – a process whose timeline is now unclear given the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sale would mirror growing trend for local papers
In March 2018 the Byrd Newspaper network, which included the DN-R, the Page News & Courier in Luray and The Winchester Star, was sold to Ogden Newspapers, a national company based in Wheeling, W.Va., that owns nearly 40 daily newspapers. The Byrd family, which had owned the DN-R since 1923, retained the property and buildings where the papers were located.
The changing landscape of print news media has led to the sales of several local newspaper buildings in recent years. In 2017, The News Leader building was sold, after the Staunton paper shut down its press operations there. The News Leader now leases space in its former building. The Valley Banner, a former Byrd weekly newspaper established in Elkton in 1966, ended its operations in June 2018 and its building was sold. In March 2019, The Winchester Star moved from the building it had occupied since 1946 – though a year later, there is no word on the property being redeveloped. And in May 2019, the Page News & Courier building in Luray, built in 1928 on a site the newspaper had occupied since 1910, went on the market. It sold in February for more than $100,000 less than its initial asking price of $319,400.
The DN-R holds a lease on the South Liberty space until 2022. In a 2019 statement provided to The Citizen, Cameron Nutting Williams, regional publisher for Ogden Publications, indicated that the company was not looking for other locations for the newspaper’s operations. On Monday, DN-R Craig Bartoldson said that situation had not changed.
Council tabled rezoning request, then pandemic struck
The DN-R property is currently zoned M-1, a classification limited to industrial uses. Matchbox has made the sale contingent on the property being rezoned to B-1 for business usage, while also requesting a special use permit that would allow DN-R operations to continue there.
“We are looking at keeping the existing structure and looking at development potential of the under-used land surrounding the building,” said Hendricksen.
He said that the company hopes the DN-R will remain at the location, and that negotiations are currently underway to extend its lease beyond 2022. Hendricksen also said the building is eligible for state and federal historic preservation tax credits.
Last year, Harrisonburg’s Community Development department recommended against rezoning, noting that the B-1 zoning district has no minimum off-street parking requirements. That places the burden of providing parking for the site on the city. In December, the Planning Commission recommended approval of the rezoning request, which was then tabled by City Council in January to wait on the results of a downtown parking study. That study was completed in April and presented to council at their April 14 meeting. According to Harrisonburg’s Planning and Zoning Assistant Director Thanh Dang, the results of the study did not change Community Development’s recommendation to deny the rezoning request.
Due to the current pandemic, Dang said, a date that the rezoning request would be brought back before city council had not been established.
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