By Michael Campbell, Prince George Journal
PRINCE GEORGE – A months-long project aimed at beautifying one of Prince George County’s most heavily visited exits reached completion last month but, for the county’s economic development team, the project is just the beginning of a bright future for Prince George’s business prospects.
In October, Prince George County and The Cameron Foundation marked the completion of their collaborative $1.2 million gateway project with a dedication ceremony at the site. “The Gardens at Exit 45,” named for its location off Interstate 95 at Exit 45, includes major lighting and landscaping enhancements. Along with the visually appealing landscaping elements, it features two, 47-foot-tall glass architectural spires that flank the roadway as well as create a threshold to the commercial district. The celebration follows more than two years of planning, design, and construction of the unique gateway.
At the time of the dedication ceremony, Prince George County Administrator Percy Ashcraft noted that Exit 45 had served as the county’s major hub for tourism in the past, but had fallen into decline in more recent years.
Based on the research and recommendations of Management Analysis, Inc., the County launched a targeted effort to restore this corridor along South Crater Road to once again serve as a key hospitality district.
“The enhancements we’ve made here offer a tremendous boost to the area. The Gardens at Exit 45 is expected to stimulate local job growth and increase our tax revenue for the county by attracting visitors and travelers alike,” Ashcraft explained.
Those words were echoed by Prince George Deputy County Administrator Jeff Stoke as he discussed the project’s completion and the future of the county.
“We used meals tax for economic development, which is all that money can be used for, to basically protect an investment of approximately $630,000 a year that we are seeing in meals and lodging taxes at the exit,” he explained. “The goal is to get those numbers to go up, not down.”
According to The Cameron Foundation, The Gardens at Exit 45 encompasses a range of landscaping, with the design calling for 139 trees, 363 shrubs, and nearly 3,000 perennials along the exit ramp and at the intersection with South Crater Road. As travelers exit Interstate 95 during the night, the trees along the southbound ramp are accentuated by 28 lights.
The gateway site is anchored by two glass towers, one along each side of the entranceway to the district. Colonial garden spires were the design inspiration for these central features in the 32,000 square-foot gateway plan.
The spire finials are highlighted by four lights, and internal illumination of the spires comes from four color-changing LED flood lights that are activated at night. The $1.2 million cost for the project was shared equally by Prince George County and The Cameron Foundation.
Stoke, who spends plenty of time with businesses along Exit 45 and across the county, said the feedback from both local business owners and visitors to the area has been positive, even before the project was dedicated last month.
“The businesses, I think, are really excited to see the county’s attention and financial investment in the interchange,” he said. “From the visitors, I think that is conveyed by visitor spending and visitor nights, which we have seen go up at that exit. You are seeing occupancy rates in that area start to go up in all the hotels and the 600 rooms we have down there.”
The county and Cameron Foundation investments seem to have sparked investments by business owners, as places like the ever-popular Nanny’s restaurant recently completed an expansion and renovation at their South Crater Road building and Comfort Inn rolling out improvements and renovations of their own.
“Every so often, everyone needs to put on a coat of paint and refresh and we saw this as an opportunity that came out of our November 2013 plan that we had done, saying that streetscape is an item that needs to be addressed,” Stoke said of the Management Analysis, Inc plan. “So here you are seeing an example of how you do a plan, then the plan has these action items we need to do to fix our issue and we actually implemented the plan.”
While the Gardens at Exit 45 project is already paying dividends in terms of drawing some of those 40,000 cars per day that pass by along Interstate 95 to the area, Stoke believes that this is just the start of what could be a business boom in the area.
“We really hope to see this as a family-friendly exit with continued growth and prosperity,” he said. “More restaurants to complement the hotels down there and to take advantage of the thousands of vehicles that pass by on I‑95.”
According to Stoke, spending time with real estate officials and business operators at key events, such as the International Council of Shopping Centers’ annual conference, helps the county place itself in the thick of discussions for businesses to consider making a home in the county.
“Being able to talk with senior real estate people, along with other types of businesses, like restaurants, cell phone stores, dry cleaners, grocery stores, and others are important,” the deputy county administrator explained. “We are using Exit 45 as a selling point to these businesses, showing that the county is investing in the exit and that we want you, the businesses, to invest as well.”
In the winter of this year, Stoke discussed the importance of using projects like The Gardens at Exit 45 as an intangible that can be used to sell a community to a prospective business when speaking about their work to fill the empty anchor space at The Crossings shopping center.
Flash forward to November, that space has been filled by Big Lots and the county is pleased with the results.
“We never like empty buildings and, of course, step one is filling all those empty buildings,” he said. “Right now, The Crossings is pretty full and we are happy about that. The next step is to see what can we do at Exit 45 to lure similar businesses that would complement the 600 rooms down there and drive business while becoming a mini shopping area for the southern part of the county and surrounding region, along with the visitors traveling up and down I‑95.”
While Exit 45 is a key economic development corridor for Prince George, Stoke said the county is actively marketing other areas and working to get the needed infrastructure in those areas to spark that development.
“I think right now we are looking at water expansion down Route 156 and a water expansion project down [U.S. Route] 460 from Wells Station Road to the Food Lion Distribution Center water tank,” he said. “Those would be our next targets. Having that water connection in both of those areas would open up economic development in both of those areas.”
Mentioning Food Lion Distribution Center, Stoke highlighted Prince George’s strength as a business hub, its logistical advantages over some of its counterparts in and around the Commonwealth.
“We have great logistics here in the Tri-Cities and Prince George,” he shared. “We have the highway system with I‑295, 95, 85, and U.S. Route 460. We have both Norfolk Southern and CSX for rail. We have an hour and a half to the Port of Virginia, 45 minutes to Richmond International Airport. We are sort of a logistical hub, which is why we see our fair share of warehouse and distribution folks coming to our area.”
Going further, Stoke said the county is actively working to market the current 700,000-square foot home of ACE Hardware ahead of its impending closure in October of 2018.
“We are working closely with ACE and their realtor team to market that and get a sale hopefully before they leave,” he said.
The Cameron Foundation is working with several localities across the Tri-Cities area to develop distinctive community gateways. The Gardens at Exit 45 is the first such project to be completed.
“Gateways can contribute significantly to creating a unique sense of place that is important to promoting tourism and investment in a community,” said Cameron President J. Todd Graham. “By working together with the local governments on these projects, we are combining our efforts to generate large-scale impact,” he added. Community gateway projects are among the Foundation’s proactive investments to help transform the Tri-Cities and surrounding counties into a healthy, vibrant, and economically vital region.
“Working with The Cameron Foundation was the perfect partnership,” Stoke said. “We were just lucky that they asked us to go first.”