By Shelby Mertens, The Progress-Index
COLONIAL HEIGHTS — The City of Colonial Heights held its first economic development strategic planning “stakeholder’s meeting” to discuss the future direction of the city.
Officials said the city is looking to brand itself and target millennials.
“It’s really about trying to revitalize what we have developed so we can focus on the up and coming generations — the millennials — who have a completely different lifestyle than what we are accustomed to,” said Karen Epps, director of economic development for the City of Colonial Heights.
The five-hour gathering on Sept. 25 of local business owners, educators, realtors and bankers was geared towards receiving feedback of what can be improved in the city. About 36 people were in attendance, with 20 businesses represented.
Topics included economic conditions, sites and infrastructure, business climate, education and quality of life. The stakeholders were divided into groups to come up with suggestions on how the city could revitalize. Epps said the city must overcome challenges it’s neighbors aren’t faced with.
“Since we’re basically landlocked and we don’t have much available property that hasn’t been developed, we need to be creative in our thinking and focus more on the revitalization and redevelopment of certain areas,” she said.
Renee Chapline, president and CEO of Virginia’s Gateway Region, a regional nonprofit economic development organization, believes Colonial Heights has what it takes to become hip with the 20-somethings.
“I think Colonial Height has great potential,” Chapline said. “It’s very timely and I think it’s a situation where we’re realizing how the millenials are changing the way our nation acts. Instead of the malls and the corridors for development, it’s more about mixed use housing and having a lot of services and lifestyle amenities that are in walkable communities.”
She added that it’s critical for the city to understand the private sector views and what the opportunities could be.
“It’s a long-term plan for our families, our kids and for the millennials to be happy here in the city,” Chapline said.
Millennials, Epps said, are less attracted to large indoor shopping malls and big-box retailers.
“The way of shopping is slowing but surely changing with e-commerce,” she said. “We’ll probably continue to have the big box located around the (Southpark) mall, but they may be smaller-scale big-boxes as opposed to the monster 80,000 square foot ones.”
The highly commercialized Southpark Mall area has, however, has been a great asset to the city over the years.
“The City of Colonial Heights is just a huge draw. It’s like a little retail hub along Interstate 95 because it’s really the only thing south of Richmond and the only thing north of North Carolina so I think we need to focus on that,” Epps said.
Epps said Petersburg’s popular Demolition Coffee and Buttermilk Bakeshop, which continually draw in young crowds, are examples of ideas they’re looking at because it brings in entrepreneurs.
Epps said the Boulevard area will mostly likely serve as the focus of revitalization. The purpose of the meeting was to identify the areas that are ripe for redevelopment.
In recent years the neighboring localities of Colonial Heights have rebranded themselves through extensive marketing campaigns such as Petersburg’s “I Am Petersburg” and the ongoing efforts of promoting and revitalizing downtown Hopewell along with its logo “Learn Well, Live Well, Work Well, Play Well, In Hopewell.”
“I’m not even aware that there’s even a real brand to the city of Colonial Heights,” Epps said. “So with the comments and ideas people are sharing with us, I think we’ll be able to come up with a good brand.”
Those in attendance also suggested that the city more aggressively pursue the site of the future regional multimodal passenger train station. The Tri-Cities Area Metropolitan Planning Organization is in the process of securing a location for the train station, with Colonial Heights mixed in the large bag of potential candidates consisting of Petersburg, Hopewell, Chesterfield, Prince George and Dinwiddie. The train will connect the Tri-Cities to Washington D.C. and Charlotte and Raleigh, North Carolina.
The city is also looking at venture capital and grant opportunities. Chapline said the city’s infrastructure will also need facade improvements due to aging buildings.
“We are dealing with an older community that needs some aesthetic improvements so from that standpoint I think we can create a more vibrant community and a reason for young people and families to even find Colonial Heights more attractive.”
Another stakeholder’s meeting will be held on Oct. 16 and Epps said a public meeting will likely follow.