By Veronica Garabelli, Virginia Business
Central Virginia has been at the center of some major economic development wins lately, including a much-coveted craft brewery headed for Richmond, a $2 billion paper plant to be built in Chesterfield County and a chemical plant that is being revived in Petersburg.
This year, the area is expected to get worldwide exposure when the UCI Road World Championships are held in Richmond Sept. 19–27. While many Americans may not be familiar with the cycling competition, organizers expect the event to bring 450,000 spectators from around the world, creating about $158 million in local economic impact and attracting millions of global television viewers. The championships haven’t been held in the U.S. since 1986. Last year, they were in Spain.
Greg Wingfield, president and CEO of the Greater Richmond Partnership (GRP), doesn’t expect the event to have a long-term economic impact, but he believes it’ll create a positive image for the city. “So, the PR value will have more of a long-lasting effect,” Wingfield says.
A craft brewer’s plans to locate in Richmond may also add to its cool factor. After a much-publicized hunt for a location east of the Mississippi, Escondido, Calif.-based Stone Brewing said last year it would establish a brewery and, eventually, a restaurant in the city, investing at least $41 million and creating a minimum of 288 jobs.
Wingfield says the GRP region, which includes Richmond and Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico counties, now has made up the jobs lost during the Great Recession. “Every new job we’ve added since mid-April has increased the total number of employed individuals, so we now have a net new gain of people working in the region,” he says.
Last year, GRP assisted with projects expected to create 3,172 future jobs and almost $2.2 billion in capital investments.
The biggest project involved Shandong Tranlin Paper Co.’s plans to locate its U.S. headquarters in Chesterfield County. The Chinese pulp and paper company is investing $2 billion and expects to create 2,000 jobs in the area by 2020.
“That was a deal that, in my mind, was one of the faster economic deals I’ve seen in my 20 years,” says Wingfield, who has headed GRP since 1994 and is retiring in June. (The organization’s current senior vice president, Barry I. Matherly, will take over as president and CEO.) The transaction took about 10 months to complete from start to finish, Wingfield says.
Another big job boost is expected from the federal government’s decision to locate the Foreign Affairs Security Training Center at Fort Pickett in Nottoway County. Jeff Reed, executive director for Virginia’s Growth Alliance, an economic development group that includes Nottoway, says the move is a game changer for his region. The center is expected to train up to 10,000 U.S. State Department staff and foreign-affairs workers. The construction phase of the project is estimated to create hundreds of jobs and bring millions of dollars in federal investment to Nottoway, according to a news release issued by Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s office.
While the public sector is expected to help the economy at Fort Pickett, defense cuts could affect Fort Lee in Prince George County and its surrounding area. The Army base could lose up to 3,600 military and civilian positions, according to a report by the U.S. Army Environmental Command.
Helen Cauthen, president of the Central Virginia Partnership for Economic Development says project activity last year increased in her region, which includes Charlottesville and Albemarle, Culpeper, Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa, Nelson and Orange counties.
The project list includes two custom apparel makers. Fairfax-based CustomInk expanded its warehouse in Albemarle County, investing $45 million in the venture and adding 582 jobs. New Jersey-based Green Applications meanwhile plans to set up its first Virginia operation in Gordonsville, investing $9.75 million and creating 323 jobs. Green Applications is moving into a building formerly occupied by American Press, which closed the plant in 2011.
Region 2000, a regional development network that serves the Lynchburg area, also has new jobs in the pipeline.
The biggest announcement last year came from Lindenburg Industry, a subsidiary of a Chinese company. Lindenburg is investing an estimated $113 million in its first U.S. manufacturing operation, creating 349 jobs in Appomattox County.
Nuclear power companies Areva and Babcock and Wilcox (B&W) cut some positions in the region last year, but Megan Lucas, head of Region 2000’s Business and Economic Development Alliance, says the nuclear energy sector still is a major asset in the region.
Lucas notes that the area is home to diverse group of businesses and a number of educational institutions, such as Liberty University, Lynchburg College, Randolph College, Sweet Briar College, Central Virginia Community College and Virginia Technical Institute, which focuses on technical-skills training.
But Central Virginia isn’t gaining attention just from business prospects — Hollywood is taking notice of the region, too.
This spring, PBS will film a Civil War drama in the Richmond and Petersburg areas. The program will premiere next winter.
“Turn,” a Colonial-era spy drama that airs on AMC, filmed its first and second seasons in the area, and “Ithaca,” a movie directed by Meg Ryan and produced by Tom Hanks, wrapped up production in the Richmond and Petersburg areas last summer. The governor’s office says film productions had an economic impact of $382.5 million in Virginia and provided $19.4 million in state and local tax revenue for the commonwealth in 2013.
In addition to serving as a film site, Virginia’s Gateway Region — which includes Petersburg, Hopewell and Colonial Heights plus the counties of Chesterfield, Dinwiddie, Prince George, Surry and Sussex — welcomed news last year that UniTao Pharmaceuticals would purchase the Boehringer Ingelheim plant in Petersburg. Boehringer had announced plans to close the plant. UniTao Pharmaceuticals, the subsidiary of a Shanghai firm, is expected to invest $22.5 million in the facility and create 376 jobs.
Renee Chapline, the head of the region’s economic development organization, says it also has seen an uptick in retail activity and community development projects, such as the reopening of the Beacon Theatre in Hopewell in 2013. The theater “has brought a lot of new life to the city,” Chapline says.
As Wingfield prepares to retire, he remains optimistic about Richmond’s future economic growth. “I think the best years are in front of the region as we continue to get accolades, the area continues to attract millennials,” he says, noting that the city’s historic infrastructure is a big draw. “That’s, you know, what people are interested in and live in. You can’t recreate that in a Charlotte or someplace. It’s either you got it or you don’t.”