VSU: New vision for Ettrick takes shape

Crossing the Appomattox River on Campbell’s Bridge from Petersburg into Chesterfield County, past old mill smokestacks and towering concrete bridge foundations, is like entering a post-apocalyptic Mayberry.

There, the small village of Ettrick is a study in contrasts, boasting small-town charm alongside urban decay with a scenic, historic college — Virginia State University — atop the hill as its crown jewel and lifeblood.

“It’s got a real character to it,” said Thomas E. Jacobson, Chesterfield’s revitalization director. “But Ettrick — economically and in terms of physical conditions — is one of the areas of the county fighting blight.”

Transforming Ettrick into a vibrant college town will take time, money and imagination.

Along with residents and the help of Virginia State, Jacobson’s office is working to revitalize the village, starting with aesthetic and pedestrian streetscape improvements to the main thoroughfare, Chesterfield Avenue. Landscaping, road and right-of-way enhancements are planned in tandem with a gradual push for student housing, retail shops, restaurants and cafés for students and residents.

“Virginia State should have a college commercial area right on the edge of campus like most universities,” Jacobson said, noting that students now congregate at Southpark Mall in Colonial Heights, miles away.

Janice Johnson — a 30-year Ettrick resident, Virginia State graduate and mother of Cincinnati Bengals running back Rudi Johnson — agrees.

“There’s a lot of tradition here,” said Johnson, who grew up nearby in Chesterfield and now runs the Rudi Johnson Foundation, which helps disadvantaged people in the community. “It’s a pretty easygoing, quiet place where mostly everyone knows each other,” she said.

Johnson said she hopes the developing vision for the area will bring jobs and visitors.

“I guess the idea is that we would be like other college communities. However, everyone realizes Ettrick has some unique qualities that maybe some of those communities don’t have,” she said. “We have different needs and a different flavor.”

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