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News & Features

Rebirth of downtown is sign of Lynchburg area's revival

by Deborah Nason
Virginia Business
November 2005

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Mark Sisson had no neighbors 10 years ago when he located his marketing and design firm in the 108-year-old Brewery Building in downtown Lynchburg. “It was like an outpost in the Wild West,” says the president of Sisson Creative in describing life by a deserted area of the James River at the base of Lynchburg’s 65-foot bluffs. “When a piece of trash blew down the street, it was like tumbleweed.”

For years, his building was surrounded by vacant warehouses and empty lots, but Sisson won’t be alone much longer. The city is trying to breathe new life into downtown with a $100 million revitalization effort. “We’ve reached critical mass — the demand [for downtown property] has exceeded supply,” says Sisson.

The rebirth of downtown Lynchburg is one sign of an economic revitalization taking place in the city and the surrounding region. A new marketing and economic development organization, Virginia’s Region 2000 Partnership, has consolidated the efforts of a wide range of groups to focus on the needs of existing industries while developing infrastructure for further growth. The region is a 2,000-square-mile area that includes the cities of Lynchburg and Bedford, along with the counties of Amherst, Appomattox, Bedford and Campbell.

Downtown revitalization
The look and level of activity in Lynchburg’s central business district finally is beginning to change, thanks to the joint efforts of city and private investors over the past 20 years. “Almost every one of the unrenovated downtown buildings has some type of plan in process for getting renovated,” says Terri Proffitt, executive director of Lynch’s Landing, a downtown economic development organization. Indeed, 17 highly visible projects have been completed in the past five years — from loft-apartment conversions to new offices and restaurants — with six more in the works.

Sisson, in fact, sees a growing similarity between Lynchburg and Savannah, Ga., a booming city whose revitalized riverside district also lies at the foot of steep bluffs. Sisson’s small building stands in the shadow of a massive empty warehouse, which is scheduled to become part of the Bluffwalk Hotel & Conference Center. When finished, the project will feature a hotel, restaurant and pub.

Several blocks up the hill, Emmett Lifsey, an architect with Calloway Johnson Moore & West, oversees the development of Market Lofts. It’s a 150,000-square-foot renovation of three historic buildings adjacent to the Community Market, the city’s longtime farmer’s market. These buildings include two warehouses dating from 1880 and 1896, and a 1948 Piggly Wiggly grocery store designed in the International Style by Lynchburg architect Stanhope Johnson.

The mixed-use plan calls for retail space, offices, and 67 apartments, which will add about 150 people to downtown’s 400 residents. “This project will be the anchor, with the Community Market, at the [western] end of Main Street,” says Lifsey. The project should be completed by fall next year.

The projects are progressing without much hoopla from the business community. “People have been talking about revitalizing the riverfront and downtown for years,” says Sisson, but over the years “they got tired of hearing about it.” A board member of Lynch’s Landing, he predicts that almost all downtown buildings will be rehabbed within the next two years.

“We’ve reached a point where we can stop talking about downtown in terms of how far we’ve come.” adds Proffitt. “It’s all about building an entirely new image of downtown.”

Economic development
Likewise, civic leaders are crafting a new image for the region. In August, the Virginia’s Region 2000 Partnership was born. The Partnership consolidates four groups under one umbrella: the regional economic development council, local government council, technology council and work force investment board. “This is the first [such entity] I know of in the state,” says Liz Povar, director of business development for the Virginia Economic Development Partnership. “The area has always been recognized as a strong region — this just takes it to the next level.”

The partnership staff is housed in two buildings across the street from each other, allowing for easy collaboration. Representatives from the Virginia Department of Business Assistance and the local Young Adult Council are in one of the suites. “It’s taken 20 years to get to this point,” says Campbell County Administrator David Laurrell, a longtime proponent of regional cooperation.

In addition to streamlining its organizations, the region has changed the way it approaches economic development. In July 2004, the board of the economic development council decided to reverse its economic development allocation mix: the 70/30 ratio that tilted toward attracting outside companies was changed to 30/70 in favor of attention to local businesses. “To support this, we brought on [project manager] Roger Beeker, to call on companies, learn their needs, and put together a database of problems and opportunities,” says Lee Cobb, the council’s executive director.

Recruitment of new firms is not neglected, however. Cobb observes that outsiders are often surprised to find a substantial base of technology businesses in the Lynchburg area. “We have over 5,000 employees working in the nuclear industry [thanks to the presence of industry giants Areva and BWXT], and about 2,000 workers in the wireless industry. Even after we lost Ericsson five years ago, we have more employees working than we did before.” When the telecom bubble burst, Ericsson drastically reduced its worldwide operations. It closed all its Lynchburg facilities, laying off approximately 3,500 employees. “We’ve been bouncing back due to expansions and entrepreneurship,” Cobb says.

Challenges ahead
Serious issues still challenge the region, however. “Even working as hard as we can,” says Cobb, “we still don’t have the kind of air service that our businesses want.” He adds that per-capita income is not as high as the state average, which might hurt recruitment efforts. “Yet, look at the cost of living — it’s much lower than the rest of the state.”

The Richmond Federal Reserve Bank says unemployment rates for the Lynchburg metropolitan area ranged from 4 percent to nearly 6 percent between 2001 and 2004, compared to state averages of 3.2 percent to 4.2 percent over the same period. Population growth for Virginia’s Region 2000 during the same time period has been only 1.2 percent, according to the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center.

Cobb identifies another regional shortfall: “not having an engineering-based university.” Plans are under way to address this problem with the recently launched Center for Advanced Engineering and Research (CAER). Developed as a joint venture between the regional economic development and technology councils, the idea behind the center is to work initially with Virginia Tech to bring research and development opportunities to local companies.

“One of the things we’re trying to get started is a wireless testing facility,” says Bill Guzek, CAER project director. The center has a memorandum of understanding to reactivate a former Ericsson building for the facility.

CAER recently got a boost when it received a $100,000 grant from the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission. “Over the next six months, we plan to meet with clusters of companies to get some projects started with them,” says Guzek. “The idea was to spur the growth of innovative ideas here — to help the companies survive. We were influenced by the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research model in Danville.”

While CAER focuses on technology of the future, the year-old $10.5 million Areva Technology Center at Central Virginia Community College (CVCC) is tending to the present-day work force, says Stan Shoun. The center contains state-of-the-art manufacturing technical laboratories for training students. “Before you can develop the spaceships, you’ve got to develop the foundation,” says Shoun, vice president of Workforce Development and Continuing Education for CVCC. “We need to build the pipeline [of future high-tech workers].”

“ The Areva center has allowed us to increase our offerings, not only in depth, but breadth,” he says. “We can now offer a wider variety of training in cutting-edge areas like ultrasonics, advanced welding with exotic materials, and nuclear health physics.”

Supporting technology from another perspective is the 3-year-old Region 2000 Technology council. Executive director Jonathan Whitt oversees an aggressive agenda, including a regional study that resulted in new areas of broadband coverage. “We brought together all the broadband providers and pointed out underserved areas to them,” he says. “That was a lot of market research they got for free.”

The council has also been pushing public WiFi access, contacting business owners and showing them how to become a wireless hotspot. “We just celebrated our 50th
hotspot, accomplished in less than a year,” he says.

The region has several economic hotspots as well, including the Forest (in Bedford County) and northwest Lynchburg. “The business development followed the residential growth and utilities that went out there,” says Cobb.

Another high-growth area is on the horizon, he predicts. “By the end of this year, the new U.S. 29 bypass will be completed, which spills out around the Town of Amherst and Sweetbriar College. They already have infrastructure in place — water, sewer, communications, highways.” In fact, Mutual Telecom recently broke ground on a 20,000-square-foot facility in the area to accommodate an expansion and a new headquarters.

Bedford County is on the move, too. “The New London [industrial park] will be poised to pick up a lot of high tech,” says Cobb. That is where booming startup Innovative Wireless Technologies is headed. CEO Eric Hansen says he expects the company to be the first tenant of the 500-acre industrial park. A former Ericsson employee, he believes that the wireless giant’s massive layoff actually helped the local economy by fostering an entrepreneurial climate. “These employees were unusually area-loyal,” he says. “And now you have [numerous] small companies making the right decisions for the area, because they want to succeed in Region 2000.”

For Sisson, the marketing consultant, the growing economic activity in the Lynchburg area is symbolic of a new spirit in the region. “In the 1890s our building was alive with the bottling of fresh beer,” he says. “More than 100 years later, our building buzzes with the bottling of a different kind of ‘creative juice.’”

 

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