By Leah Small, The Progress-Index
PRINCE GEORGE —Prince George County is working to attract more business to its hospitality district off of Exit 45, with a nearly $1 million gateway improvement initiative.
The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on Tuesday to partner with The Cameron Foundation for the construction of landscape and architectural improvements at the entrance to South Crater Road from Interstate 95.
The improvements are part of the Community Gateway Project, a larger initiative by Cameron to foster economic development in the Tri-Cities region. The nonprofit group is also working with officials in Petersburg, Hopewell and Dinwiddie County to launch public-private partnerships on gateway projects. Two gateway projects — improvements to the entrance of a city or community — are planned for Petersburg.
The county and Cameron will each pay half of the cost of the $940,000 project, which includes gateway spires, lighting, landscaping and other site improvements. Prince George will be responsible for the construction and maintenance of the project and has set aside funding in its budget for fiscal year 2016.
Jeff Stoke, deputy county administrator, said that the project could be named The Gardens of Exit 45, to market the area.
“We see this as a very personable and family-oriented exit. We have 600 hotel rooms at this exit and we’re trying to fill them every single day,” he said.
County officials hope to improve the economic vitality of the corridor known for its large number of hotels. The area took a hit after Fort Lee opened a 1,000-room hotel in 2013. Following its construction, Prince George’s restaurants and hotels suffered significant declines in business according to a report by independent consultant Management Analysis Inc.
The gateway improvements are part of a larger plan to revitalize the South Crater Road exit, which includes working with area businesses to improve the corridor’s appearance.
In a statement from Cameron announcing the partnership, Percy Ashcraft, county administrator, said that revitalization of the area is key to making the county more economically competitive.
“… We will be better positioned to draw motorists from the highway to stop in Prince George, dine and shop in our local hotels. These revenues are so important to our local economy,” he said.
An estimated 40,000 vehicles travel through that area of interstate 95 daily.
J. Todd Graham, president of The Cameron Foundation, said in a recent interview that the regional gateways initiative was a cornerstone of Cameron’s recently updated mission to be more proactive in its grantmaking.
Instead of only waiting for groups to approach the foundation with grant proposals, Cameron is bringing together stakeholders who have an interest in tackling some of the region’s biggest problems. In the case of the gateways project, multiple stakeholders brought together resources and ideas to improve economic development throughout the region.
“The Cameron Foundation has an interest in partnering with local governments to undertake high quality streetscape and gateway improvements that will spur economic development, foster community pride and enhance civic image,” Graham said.
In recent discussions with the localities, Cameron found that the each had been planning a gateway project for years, but weren’t able to gather all of the funding and resources to do so.
Graham said that the foundation approached the localities with idea of one unifying gateway project for the region, but each said no.
“We found out that these small communities in the Southside are very distinctive and they wish to maintain that distinctive identity,” Graham said.
Cameron is still working out estimates for the projects and will pay half of the total costs for each locality.
Petersburg is the only locality with two gateway projects planned. Early estimates peg each project at over $1 million.
The first project planned for Petersburg is at the city’s Exit 52 entrance, which is passed by an estimated 100,000 cars a day along Interstate 95.
Ornamental fencing, which draws on the use of wrought iron in the city’s historic districts and cemeteries, is planned to replace the chain link fencing along bridge taht spans the exit. The fencing will be re enforced so that it won’t come down if hit by large vehicles and will be lit at night.
Graham said that construction is estimated to begin in about two years at the latest.
Petersburg’s second gateway, which is estimated to be the largest investment of the regional gateway projects, is along University Boulevard.
The boulevard was once Fleet and Canal streets but was recently renamed to reflect the city’s ties with Virginia State University. The boulevard links the city, the university and the Appomattox River.
Preliminary designs incorporate the area’s industrial railroad trestles with viewing areas of the Appomattox River and links to trails. Visual improvements will make the area into a park that Graham said Cameron and the city hope would draw investors to the area.
Before construction can begin, Petersburg must raise its share of the funding and there is the added challenge of building in a flood plain. The foundations of historic industrial buildings such as mills, must also be researched.
Dinwiddie is also in discussion with Cameron about implementing its own gateway project. County officials and the organization decided that the project should be located along Route 1 because of its closeness to Pamplin Historical Park and other cultural sites in the county.
Graham said that the project will showcase historic markers on the side of the road by providing landscaped pull offs where cars can be parked. Some of the markers may also be accompanied by related sculptures. The entrance to Pamplin will also be marked by a landscaped park.
Hopewell is also attempting to secure funding for a roughly 45-foot sculpture that will mark the Route 10 entrance into the city. Graham said that when the city has identified funding, a panel will commission an artist to craft a sculpture based on a local theme.