Big player in a small city

University of Virginia gives Charlottesville the benefits of a much larger town

  •  | 
Print this page

One wit recently characterized Charlottesville as a mill town where the University of Virginia just happens to be the mill.

His point was spot on. Like a big factory in a small town, the university is the city’s dominant employer, with a work force of more than 20,000 serving a student population of almost 25,000.

Without the university, located technically in Albemarle County but really bordering the city’s downtown, Charlottesville would be a quaint, sleepy place.

“If the university wasn’t in Charlottesville, Charlottesville wouldn’t be Charlottesville,” says Michael Harvey, president of the Thomas Jefferson Partnership for Economic Development. “It has a whole lot to do with the quality of our amenities … with our vibrant downtown, our arts and culture.”

Because of the university, Charlottesville enjoys benefits more commonly found in a big city. It has a well-educated work force, 40 percent of which works in education or health care. Its historic setting and laid-back sophistication make the city attractive to business owners and celebrities alike. But Charlottesville’s popularity also has resulted in traffic congestion and high housing costs, which are encouraging middle-class flight to surrounding counties.

Mayor Dave Norris says the influence of U.Va. on his city is immense. “The vibrancy and vitality that it brings here … the impact of its intelligence component, financial component and cultural component here is incredible,” he says. “And there’s also a tremendous economic ripple effect,” he says.

NIITEK is one wave in that ripple. The company, which builds land-mine detection equipment, established a new production plant in Charlottesville’s University Research Park almost two years ago. Juan Navarro, the company’s executive vice president and general manager, says the company was drawn by the university and the city’s strategic location. “It allows us to pull from Richmond, and it’s located right there at U.S. 29 and Interstate 64. It’s a perfect location,” he says.

“The quality of life in Charlottesville is phenomenal,” Navarro adds. So is NIITEK’s business. The company, which has more than 125 workers, is planning to expand. “It’s a great business to be in because we’re saving lives,” he says.

NIITEK engineers work closely with U.Va. faculty members, especially in the area of electronics. Charlottesville also has a large number of engineers and scientists. “We wanted access to that talent pool,” says Navarro. “It’s a perfect fit.”
That deep pool of educated workers also has attracted what Tim Hulbert calls a new industry in Charlottesville — intelligence gathering. “Our nation has determined enemies, and we need to know who they are and what they’re doing,” says Hulbert, president of the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce. “The ongoing need for intelligence gathering is growing.”

A lot of that growth is taking place at Rivanna Station, a new business park in northern Albemarle. The park now has the National Ground Intelligence Center — whose mission includes gathering information on terrorists — and the Joint Use Intelligence Analysis Facility. That facility soon will transfer about 800 jobs from Northern Virginia with average annual salaries of $80,000. The federal intelligence agencies will employ about 2,000 people in the region. “That’s a ton of money that will create more business opportunities,” Hulbert says. “It would not surprise me if we didn’t see several thousand more job opportunities here in that area over the next several years.”

The Charlottesville area also boasts an extensive health-care community, largely because of the growing U.Va. medical complex. The five-story, 150,000-square-foot Emily Couric Clinical Cancer Center is expected to be completed next year. Also, U.Va.’s Children’s Hospital plans to build a 200,000-square-foot, seven-story facility, which will offer outpatient and rehabilitative care by 2013.

In addition to the U.Va. facilities, Charlottesville’s Martha Jefferson Hospital plans to move to a new facility on Pantops Mountain in 2012.  “We have the best health care in the world,” says Hulbert.

Charlottesville also has entertainment and cultural attractions that typically would be found in much larger cities. It is the site of the annual Virginia Film Festival, which drew 19,000 visitors last year. In addition, well-known entertainers such as singer Mary Chapin Carpenter make frequent appearances at the downtown Paramount Theatre, a once-crumbling movie palace that has been transformed into an elegant venue for plays, music and national acts. Also, the John Paul Jones Arena, the home of U.Va. basketball, features acts ranging from Jimmy Buffet to monster trucks. Returning soon to the arena will be Dave Matthews, the band leader who started his musical career in Charlottesville.

Famous people also come to Charlottesville to tour Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello. Dan Jordan, the former head of the foundation managing Monticello, says he and his wife conducted tours for 38 heads of state in 24 years. The list includes every American president from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush. Others on the list are former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and the emperor and empress of Japan.
Besides heads of state, dozens of Hollywood stars visited Monticello as did Civil Rights Movement icons such as Jesse Jackson, Rosa Parks and Andrew Young. Jordan’s favorite celebrities were author Eudora Welty and rocker Mick Jagger, who was “gracious, totally engaged and truly knew his Jefferson.”

While many famous people visit Charlottesville, some live in the area year-round. Academy Award-winning actress Sissy Spacek serves as spokeswoman for the local SPCA.  Best-selling author John Grisham can be spotted occasionally on the red-brick downtown pedestrian mall, which features more than 30 restaurants and 120 shops. “It’s just a really interesting place to live,” says Harvey. “It’s a small town but also like a big city. It really is kind of a sweet spot here.”
But the city’s many attractive features also have created problems. Traffic congestion in Charlottesville and on U.S. 29 North is a constant headache. Squabbling over road-building in the area has reached almost comic proportions. A north-south bypass, on the drawing board for 30 years, appears dead in the water from lack of money and political will. One of three portions of Meadowcreek Parkway is under construction, but progress is threatened by potential lawsuits. Critics say the road, which would connect downtown to northern Albemarle, will ruin a city park.

In addition to traffic problems, the cost of living in Charlottesville is notoriously high. Many nurses, firefighters and police have retreated to the outlying counties, where housing costs are lower. The median price for a house in Albemarle County in the first quarter of this year was $285,000, while the median price in Charlottesville was $248,000, according to the Charlottesville Area Association of Realtors. By comparison, the median cost of a house in Fluvanna County in the first three months of this year was $205,000 and in Nelson County, $219,000. In Fluvanna, almost 60 percent of the county’s work force commute to jobs outside the county, most of them in Charlottesville.

Charlottesville is trying to promote affordable housing by offering incentives — such as streamlined regulations and higher density — to developers who build less expensive homes. “We’re adjusting a social problem in a business-friendly way,” says Norris.

In addition to creating affordable housing, the city is trying to attract more middle-class jobs that don’t require college degrees. “We’re hemorrhaging the middle class,” says Norris. “My big focus is how to attract more skilled-trade kinds of businesses like light industry or light manufacturing.”

Norris points to Piedmont Virginia Community College’s Division of Workforce Services and its newly renovated Stultz Center for Business and Career Development. It’s one place where new skills, such as carpentry, can be learned.
Meanwhile, the city is gearing up to celebrate the 250th anniversary of its founding. In 1762, the city was formed as an outpost between Richmond and Staunton along what was then known as Three Notch’d Road. The city has set aside $50,000 for the 2012 celebration, which will include yet-to-be-determined new tourism initiatives.

The celebration could bring a welcome boost to the local economy. Like everywhere else, the city and Albemarle still are recovering from the recession. That situation has made the localities more creative and business friendly, says Hulbert. “There’s a new tenor because of the economy,” he said. “Charlottesville is insulated but not immune. I think a lot of public officials saw we’re not immune and need to embrace business.” 

CHART:  Charlottesville at a glance

showhide shortcuts