Category Archives: Economic development

In Hampton Roads, Life Is Not a Gas

natural_gas

Hampton Roads and other Tidewater communities see proposed natural gas pipelines in Virginia as a boon to economic development.

by James A. Bacon

While debate rages in western Virginia over the economic impact of natural gas pipelines on property values and local economies, we hardly hear a peep from the low country areas of Virginia and North Carolina that would benefit from an expanded supply of gas.

Elected officials claim, and economic developers confirm, that inadequate supplies of gas to Hampton Roads and outlying communities prevent them from competing for energy-intensive industrial customers, crimping efforts to grow their economies and create jobs.

“I’ve heard from cities and developers and builders. … We’ve got to get more capacity here,” says Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, chair of the Hampton Roads Caucus, who persuaded the region’s 33 state senators and delegates to sign a March letter supporting the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP).

Voices from Hampton Roads and places like Brunswick and Greensville counties, where new gas-fired power plants are being built, have been quiet during the pipeline controversy. The impact of pipeline construction is less tangible and immediate than it is for, say, landowners in the path of the ACP and the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline. And the benefits are more theoretical — fresh gas supplies would put their communities in the running for manufacturing projects they can’t compete for now, but it’s not as if there’s a big job-creating project waiting in the wings. Natural gas proponents aren’t barraging the media with press releases, filing lawsuits or marching on the state capitol.

Still, economic developers and political leaders have quietly lined up behind pipeline development, especially the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. For DeSteph, the aha! moment occurred about two-and-a-half years ago when demand from a severe cold snap swamped the local gas distributor, Virginia National Gas. The utility had to tell some of its largest customers to curtail their use of the fuel, as called for under contract. “I was shocked that we shut down the gas supply,” says DeSteph. “In my opinion that’s something we should never do.”

While big industrial customers usually can manage such outages, supply curtailments send a signal that gas supplies are limited. No energy-intensive manufacturer would want to locate or expand in Hampton Roads when they could locate worry-free in other communities. Noting that the Norfolk Naval Station was one of the entities that curtailed its gas use, DeSteph even fears that the capped gas supply could undermine the region’s status as a military hub.

The decline in natural gas prices made possible by fracking and the exploitation of the Marcellus/Utica gas fields has driven the re-shoring of energy-intensive manufacturing back to the United States, says Rick Weddle, president of the Hampton Roads Economic Development Partnership. But the areas benefiting from the trend have been those with access to the abundant gas supplies. Hampton Roads isn’t in the running.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline, designed to carry 1.5 billion cubic feet of gas per day, could change that. The pipeline would run from West Virginia through Virginia to North Carolina. A spur would split off from the main pipeline to deliver gas to Virginia Natural Gas, which has signed a 20-year customer agreement, and whose parent company AGL Resources is one of the partners in the project. The pipeline also would serve Piedmont Natural Gas serving the North Carolina market, which is a partner, too. (Dominion Resources, a sponsor of this blog, is the managing partner.)

A bigger supply of natural gas to the region would expand the prospects that Hampton Roads could compete for. “We would target new industries,” Weddle says.

The same logic applies to smaller communities in eastern Virginia and North Carolina, which also sit at the end of the existing pipeline distribution system.

The big five utilities in the industrial recruitment game are wastewater, electricity, fiber-optic cable and natural gas, says Christopher Chung, CEO of the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina. “Most companies want gas, whether they’re using it for heating or as part of the manufacturing process. Not one hundred percent need it, but most do. It’s really hard for a community to make the case to recruit a manufacturer if it doesn’t have natural gas. Not impossible. But so many locations do have it that you’re at a major competitive disadvantage if you don’t.” Continue reading

Heart of Appalachia

If you want to see how the communities of far Southwest Virginia are trying to reinvent their economies as their mainstay coal industry swirls down the drain, check out the website produced by the Heart of Appalachian Tourism Authority. The two-person authority is promoting regional music, culture, crafts and, most of all, outdoor activities like fishing, ATV riding, hiking, and camping. The authority scored a small coup by snagging “Heart of Appalachia,” performed by Wise County singer-songwriter Kaitlyn Baker, for use in its marketing.

You have to credit the scrappy tourism team for drawing a pretty picture of Southwest Virginia, which has more than its share of poverty and mining-despoiled landscapes. But realistically speaking, one has to ask what kind of economic contribution tourism can make. I still remember the words of deceased Virginia Tourism director Patrick McMahon who sympathized with the effort to lure backpackers and kayakers to the Virginia mountains but noted that selling water bottles and granola bars didn’t generate much in the way of revenue.

Southwest Virginia does not have, and never will have, the marketing dollars or the destinations to compete with first-tier tourism attractions. The region should look to the mountain regions of North Carolina for a nearby example — and perhaps to Aspen, Colo., for a distant example — of how to create an outdoor-oriented lifestyle that will lure retirees and second home-owners. The real money would come from visitors who fall in love with the area, purchase real estate, remodel old homes, build new ones, and start lifestyle businesses.

Getting people to visit the region is the first step in making such a transition, so the tourism initiative is entirely appropriate. But the effort can’t stop there. Local leaders need a broader vision of how to convert visitors into residents, and residents into investors.

— JAB 

Virginia Economic Growth Still a Struggle

New home of Phone2Action -- celebrating small victories.

New home of Phone2Action — celebrating small victories.

Straws in the wind regarding Northern Virginia’s business climate:

Budget sequestration may be a thing of the past, but the federal budget squeeze is not. In her latest Richmond Times-Dispatch column, economist Chris Chmura notes that in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2015, federal spending on contracts fell 4.4% — some $2.4 billion — in Virginia. About two-thirds of that was defense spending. With slow economic growth and Baby Boomer retirements driving Medicare spending ever higher, there is likely no relief in sight. Short of another big war, it seems to me, it is difficult to imagine a strong rebound in federal contracting.

Meanwhile, Washington, D.C., continues to gain competitive advantage over outlying jurisdictions in the metropolitan region. Even Arlington County, which is highly urbanized, close to the urban core, and blessed by mass transit and walkable neighborhoods, is feeling the challenge. “The county is … facing heavy competition from Alexandria and D.C., both of which are aggressively recruiting the same pool of talent,” writes Daniel J. Sernovitz with the Washington Business Journal.

The competition has gotten so fierce that Governor Terry McAuliffe made a trip to Arlington last week to celebrate the leasing of 3,586 square feet on Wilson Blvd. by Phone2Action, a 25-employee startup that had recently landed $4.7 million in venture funding. The governor provided $127,800 in state assistance. According to Sernowitz, Opower, an energy conservation company, has wangled money out of the state and Arlington County, to stay in Arlington rather than move to the district. Meanwhile, Arlington and Alexandria, he reported in February, felt compelled to set aside more funds for business recruitment.

To mangle an old phrase, if Northern Virginia sneezes, Virginia catches a cold. The commonwealth finished the 2016 fiscal year $266 million in the red, as revenues increased only 1.7%, short of the projected 3.2%.

— JAB

Rocky Mountain High Real Estate Values

Street scene in Aspen, Colo.

Street view in Aspen, Colo.

by James A. Bacon

According to a 2011 Wall Street Journal article, Aspen, Colo., could boast of having the most expensive real estate in the country. I don’t know if that’s still true, but I wouldn’t be surprised. As I sit here blogging at Ink! Coffee, looking upon a patio filled with Pellegrino umbrellas and baskets of bright mountain flowers while perusing the real estate ads in The Aspen Times, it quickly becomes clear that this is a place where I could never afford to live. A 3,414-square-foot home with a view of Aspen Mountain and within walking distance of downtown is on the market for $4,995,000. Select neighborhoods in Manhattan might be more expensive on a per-square-foot basis — I don’t pretend to know the national real estate market — but there cannot be many places that are.

Prone as I am to over-thinking absolutely everything, I have been asking myself, how did Aspen get to be one of the most desirable locations in the planet, while small mountain towns in Virginia with comparable natural beauty slide into senescence? Does Aspen provide lessons that Virginia communities can learn from — not with the unrealistic aim of becoming a playground of the one percent, but with the modest goal of attracting tourists and retirees, supporting jobs, lifting the tax base, and paying for amenities that make life more enjoyable for the people who live there?

In the article that follows, I will endeavor to address those questions, fully cognizant that anything I say is based upon the hasty and superficial impressions. My methodology is simple: I stroll around town with iPhone camera in hand and an eye to observing land use, architecture, transportation, and the retail scene. As always, I pay attention to the quality of the public sphere and the “small spaces.” When possible, I engage people in conversation. As it happens, Aspeners (or Aspenites, whatever they call themselves) are incredibly friendly and eager to talk about their fair city.

Aspen got its start in the late 1880s as a silver-mining boom town. When the silver boom went bust, so did the town. Fortunes did not revive until 1946 when Friedl Pfeifer, a former Austrian skiing champion, linked up with industrialist Walter Paepcke and his wife Elizabeth to form the Aspen Skiing Corporation. The town’s most enduring resource, as it turned out, was not silver but world-class skiing.

The inter-mountain west has many  popular ski resorts, but none has done as well as Aspen at winning name recognition and attracting the super-rich. One key to its phenomenal success, I would suggest, is its silver-mining inheritance: a downtown laid out in a classic grid street pattern, a number of handsome brick buildings, and a municipal government intent upon preserving that heritage. Aspen has something that many of its ski-resort peers does not: walkability. Admittedly, Aspen isn’t the only walkable ski town — Jackson, Wyoming, springs to mind — so pedestrian ambiance is not exclusively responsible for vaulting it into the real estate stratosphere. But a comparison with Virginia/West Virginia ski resorts such as Wintergreen, Snowshoe and Massanutten lacking downtown districts suggest that walkability is a critical differentiator.

Downtown Aspen, comprising about two dozen blocks, is a destination in itself, and real estate ads tout houses’ proximity to the urban center. While the “Mountain Modern” style of architecture often presents a jarring contrast with the 1880s-era buildings, the overall effect is still magical. Visitors come to Aspen, fall in love, and gladly pay a premium to buy a house or condominium that allows them to live here.

Aspen5

Not only are historic buildings from Aspen’s silver-mining past architecturally distinctive but they help define the walkable street space.

Walkability

One of the first things my wife, friends and I noticed when strolling around downtown was the paucity of cars. Traffic was negligible. I assumed the empty streets reflected the lassitude of the summer season at a skiing destination. But a friendly acquaintance, a commodities trader who moved here from Chicago, assured me otherwise. We were, in fact, experiencing peak downtown traffic. Summer tourism is booming, and a lot of people bring their own cars and four-wheel drives to take advantage of the hiking, fishing, rock climbing, and whitewater rafting.

While cars may be scarce, human beings are everywhere. The ability to live here without driving is a prime attraction. People can meet most of their daily needs by walking and biking. The commodities trader said he goes a week at a time without ever stepping in a car. Another acquaintance, a native Philadelphian who lives here eight months of the year and does business in New York, said when he recently sold a Jeep he’d owned twelve years, it only had 15,000 miles on it.

Uncongested streets are the result of thoughtful design. Aspen hews to the rules of classical urbanism. For starters, the buildings define the street space. Rather than standing out and saying, “Hey, look at me” with egocentric starchitect designs, they conform with one another in size, height and relationship to the street. By abutting the sidewalks, their facades delineate the public space of the sidewalk realm. While you won’t see many cars driving around, plenty are using the on-street parking — and that’s a good thing. Parked cars and building facades bracket the pedestrian domain as a distinct space. This pedestrian realm, as I shall describe, is adorned by flower gardens, rain gardens, statuary, street seating, and window shopping that make it extraordinarily inviting. Continue reading

In Praise of Carytown

carytown

by James A. Bacon

One of the Bacon family’s favorite places to go in Richmond is Carytown, an eight-block retail strip embedded in Richmond’s Museum District. Some of our favorite restaurants are there — Can Can Brasserie if we’re in the mood for French, Amici’s if for Italian, Cappola’s if for subs. For soon-to-be empty nesters like us who parachute in from the ‘burbs, the food is the main draw. But not the only one. I look for any excuse to visit Carytown… just because.

As much as I cherish Carytown, I was astonished to see that Cushman & Wakefield profiled it as one of America’s top “cool streets,” giving it a tongue-in-cheek rating of “prime hipness” on its hip-o-meter. I’m so un-hip it hurts. I’m the opposite of hip — I’m pih. Moreover, other than the culinary scene, I’m not accustomed to anyone uttering the words “Richmond” and “hip” in the same breath.

But I do agree, there is something very special about Carytown. Moreover, there are lessons to be learned from its success. Along with Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, Chicago’s Logan Square and other cool streets profiled in the report, Carytown is an urban laboratory, a live demonstration showing how retail can thrive in the age of failing malls, shrinking chain stores, and ubiquitous e-commerce.

According to Cushman & Wakefield, Millennials are the generation that defines what’s what’s cool, fashionable, and chic. Almost by definition, cool streets are areas that draw large numbers of Millennials as patrons and entrepreneurs. Urban Millennials are looking for affordable housing and walkable neighborhoods. The cool streets in the Cushman & Wakefield survey meet those criteria. They tend to be older, affordable neighborhoods developed decades ago when grid streets were the norm, went to seed and now are coming back. Tony, long-established retail districts are too expensive to attract Millennials, either as patrons, entrepreneurs or residents living nearby.

Cool streets are dominated by small, independent businesses. They are eccentric and eclectic. They are never dull and predictable. As such, says the report, they are incubators for new retail concepts.

Carytown, notes the report, is home to about 300 boutiques, shops, restaurants and bars in about 950,000 square feet of retail inventory. Rents vary from $12 to $40 per square foot. Millennials account for 43.1% of the population, one of the highest percentages of the cool streets surveyed, and average household income exceeds $81,000. Vacancies are extremely low and rents are rising, but there are no major redevelopment projects underway.

A couple of observations about how Carytown came to be Carytown.

First, Carytown did not emerge from some master planner’s vision. It evolved organically. This stretch of West Cary Street was built in the 1930s as an extension of the Fan neighborhood, and the standard practice of that time was to lay out the city in grid streets, with buildings abutting and facing the street. Other than the magnificent old Byrd Theater and a converted church, none of the buildings are architecturally distinctive. But the cellular structure of the small, street-facing buildings is perfect for shops, boutiques and small restaurants.

Second, the City of Richmond has stayed out of the way. Other than building a two-story parking deck on a side street, the city has busied itself with projects in other parts of the city. It has not spurred “redevelopment.” It hasn’t blessed the district with big plans.

Third, the district combines automobile accessibility with walkability. Parking lots and the parking deck are either tucked away behind the buildings or concentrated in the shopping centers on the west end — they do not violate the integrity of the streetscape. The sidewalks lining Cary Street create a hospitable environment for pedestrians, with visually interesting shops on one side and parked cars creating a buffer from traffic on the other.

Fourth, only modest attention has been given to “place making.” Those features that exist have come largely at the initiative of the businesses themselves — on-street dining, statues and artwork on the sidewalks.

Carytown is a classic example of organic, from-the-bottom-up development that costs taxpayers almost nothing but adds immeasurably to the quality of life. It’s not the only model for urban revitalization, but it’s a darn good one.

Questions about Bidding War for FBI HQ

Rendering of proposed new FBI headquarters

Rendering of proposed new FBI headquarters

There’s a bidding war between Virginia and Maryland to snag a planned, 2.1 million-square-foot Federal Bureau of Investigation headquarters campus. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan is in for $317 million in state and local funds, according to the Washington Business Journal. Governor Terry McAuliffe is in for $120 million. In both cases most of the money would be applied to make transportation improvements near the proposed sites.

The Virginia location would be in the Springfield area, and the funds would be used to mitigate the transportation impact of relocating thousands of employees from Washington, D.C., to Northern Virginia. There are many interesting angles to this story:

  • Would the $120 million McAuliffe proposes spending benefit mainly the FBI and its employees, or would the contemplated improvements benefit others in the Springfield area as well?
  • Where would the money come from, and what alternate uses are there for that money? What other projects would be deferred?
  • How would the move alter commuting patterns? Would a significant number of employees be “reverse commuting” from Washington, D.C., to Virginia? Will the relocation ease or stress Northern Virginia’s transportation problems?
  • What would be the economic benefits of bringing the FBI to Virginia? Presumably, as a federal facility, the headquarters would generate no real estate tax revenues. Would a Virginia location inspire many FBI employees to move to Virginia — and, given the lack of property tax revenue, would they represent a net gain to the state and local governments and their taxpayers?
  • Who owns the Springfield site for the new headquarters? How much would the property owner stand to benefit from this deal and resulting investment in transportation improvements?

— JAB

Bikes, Bees, Beauty

lowline2

by James A. Bacon

New York City has its High Line park built upon an abandoned, elevated freight rail line. The City of Richmond has its Low Line park, built underneath CSX Corp. railroad trestles.

In the seven years since opening to great fanfare, Manhattan’s High Line has attracted millions of visitors and inspired the construction of nearly 1,400 housing units along its two-mile route. By contrast, the opening of Richmond’s Low Line has been decidedly low key, and no one is expecting it to become a magnet for real estate development. But the Low Line could well become an integral part of Richmond’s park system and spur reclamation of the riverfront.

The vision for the $6 million project calls for flower plots with benches, covered walkways beneath the trestles, rain gardens along the Kanawha Canal, and trees shading HOW MANY?? hundred yards of bike path. Capital Trees, a not-for-profit organized to promote urban greening, has committed to fund the ongoing maintenance.

A year ago, the area was an overgrown ruin, neglected by CSX and the City of Richmond, which shared ownership of the land for more than a century. Located in the flood plain, the property had little value. No one had reason to invest in it or even care about it.

“There was no advocate for this area. It was blighted,” says Susan Robertson, co-chair of Capital Trees. “People would ride on the canal boats from the manicured, renovated canal walk [in Shockoe Bottom] and encounter a scene with invasive weeds and trees. From June through November, you couldn’t see the canal [from the land].”

When the Low Line is complete, it will knit together a cluster of recreational assets including the Richmond terminus of the 52-mile Capital Trail, the Great Shiplock Park, the Kanawha Canal, and Chapel Island with its trails and kayak launch. The Low Line also will provide an amenity for the 1,500 residents of Tobacco Row apartments and condominiums on the far side of the flood wall.

“It’s so great,” Victoria Hedegger, a Tobacco Row resident, said recently while walking her new-born in a stroller. “It was nice before. Now it’s even nicer. [The gardens] make the trail so much more attractive.”

Before Capital Trees got involved, this was the view from the Capital Trails bike path.

Before Capital Trees got involved, this was the view from the Capital Trails bike path.

Capital Trees originated as a collaboration between the Richmond region’s four garden clubs in the expectation that they could undertake projects with greater impact if they worked together. The new generation of garden club leaders aren’t content with traditional beautification projects. They are exploring the intersection of beautification, conservation, storm water management and urban place making.

In its early incarnation, the group worked with city officials to reform the urban tree-planting program. Then it spear-headed the building of rain gardens on 14th street in Richmond’s downtown to control storm water runoff. With each success, Capital Trees’ projects became more ambitious.

In 2011 Lynda Miller, head of New York City’s Central Park Conservancy, visited Richmond to describe how volunteers had reclaimed part of Central Park. “She told use we could tackle big, important projects that can make our lives better, recalls Clare Osdene Schapiro, a Richmond Times-Dispatch writer active in the organization. Continue reading