In transition

Technology and foreign companies fuel a new economy

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Print this page by Tim Thornton

The Danville area is not the tobacco and textile center it used to be. Mill and warehouse buildings still stand as a reminder of that era, but they are being put to new use as the area goes high-tech in a big way.

The renovated Old Belt No. 1 warehouse, a tobacco warehouse built in 1877, soon will be the home to a supercomputer center. Another structure, the hulking “White Mill” once owned by textile giant Dan River Inc., has been revamped and is being marketed as a technology center.

Meanwhile, the city has received international recognition for its online network linking area medical facilities.

Even the farms outside of town are going high-tech. VanDerHyde Dairy, near Chatham, has used a combination of public and private funding to build Virginia’s first anaerobic digester, which turns methane from cow manure into electricity.

The turn to high-tech is a matter of necessity, says Jeremy Stratton, executive director of Danville Economic Development. “We have to … We’re preparing for the future.”
In June, Gov. Bob McDonnell announced that Noblis, a nonprofit science, technology and strategy organization based in Falls Church, and the Seattle-based supercomputer company Cray plan to invest $2.5 million to create the Center for Applied High Performance Computing in Danville. The state is contributing $1 million toward the center while the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission is providing $3 million.

The center will own the first “next-generation” Cray XMT supercomputer to be used in the U.S. outside of a federal laboratory or university. All of that computing power will be turned loose to help companies solve complex problems.

The center will provide 15 jobs, paying high salaries. But those jobs aren’t the point of this project. Part of the center’s raison d’etre is to attract the kind of companies that need that kind of computing power.

There had been talk that the supercomputer center would go in the Danville’s iconic White Mill, which has 600,000 square feet of space. But the computing center, which requires only 8,000 square feet, is headed instead for the city-owned Old Belt building in the city’s historic Tobacco Warehouse District. South Carolina-based Gibbs International has spent $5 million to get the White Mill’s interior ready for use as a technology center, Stratton says.

New high-tech jobs already are on the way. Herndon-based EcomNets, a software developer and IT services firm, has begun to hiring at the Airside Industrial Park. EcomNets will produce 20,000 energy-efficient personal computers a year. The company expects to have a local work force of 160 employees within three years.

A month before the supercomputer announcement, Danville received an international award that helped solidify its reputation as a creative site for technology. The Intelligent Community Forum, a New York-based think tank focused on “the impact of access communications technologies” recognized the nDanville Medical Network for innovative use of existing technology. The network links medical facilities, allowing them to quickly exchange information. The program also enhances medical technician training at Danville Community College.

For two years in a row, the Intelligent Community Forum named Danville to its annual list of Smart21 Communities around the globe. On the most recent list, it was one of only six communities from the U.S.

Danville’s high-tech, international profile actually has been growing for some time.

The Institute for Advanced Learning and Research opened in 2004. Self-described as “a catalyst for economic and community transformation,” the Institute conducts research in polymers, motorsports engineering, unmanned systems, and horticulture and forestry. It hopes to attract small and mid-size companies that could benefit from that research and, through partnerships with Virginia Tech, Averett University and Danville Community College, prepare a work force for those companies.

Back in the Tobacco Warehouse District, the new Center for Applied High Performance Computing will share the Old Belt building with existing tenant LiFeBATT USA, a Taiwanese company that tests and assembles batteries for hybrid vehicles and solar power storage.

Next door is the home of Luna nanoWorks, a company developing pharmaceuticals using carbon nanomaterials.

Danville’s international vibe is coming from a host of foreign companies like LiFeBATT that have set up shop in the region in recent years. For example, Essell Propack, an Indian manufacturer of tube packaging for toothpaste, food, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and industrial products, has expanded its Danville operations four times since opening in 2002.
In addition, three other foreign companies have capitalized on the region’s tobacco and furniture industry traditions. Japan Tobacco International has 39 full-time and about 150 seasonal employees in Danville. Swedwood, a subsidiary of Ikea, has a furniture factory in a nearby industrial park. Its presence in the area attracted EBI LLC, a subsidiary of a Polish company that makes upholstery and mattresses for Ikea. (Not all has been smooth sailing for the newcomers. Labor complaints at Swedwood drew national attention, and some employees are considering holding a union election.)

In addition to attracting high-tech companies, the Tobacco Warehouse District now has about 160 housing units and 140 niche retailers. About 60,000 square feet of the former headquarters of the tobacco broker Dimon is being used as Averett University’s Riverview campus, which includes classrooms, labs and offices for the university and the Danville Regional Foundation.

Downtown, there are still plenty of empty buildings along Main Street, but some of them have signs announcing that new businesses will be opening soon. Others are undergoing extensive renovations.

Jeff Seiden, a former Brooklyn artist, and his brother-in-law, Danville businessman Jason Liepe, recently opened downtown’s first art gallery in an old building that used to be a bike shop.

Across the street, Norm and Lauren Aquilo run Riverland Music, which offers a dizzying list of instruments and lessons for playing them. Norm Aquilo says the couple opened the shop in January 2008 in anticipation of the old Downtowner Motel being turned into apartments for Averett University students. That never happened. (The Industrial Development Authority bought the building in June and plans to tear it down.)

Nonetheless, Aquino doesn’t sound discouraged. He talks about the sandwich shop that may be moving in across the street, the coffee shop that’s opening down the block and the nearby Union Street Theatre, which opened in July. Things are coming together, he says.

In fact, consultants recently unveiled “catalyst revitalization projects” turning four buildings into a boutique hotel, apartments, office space and shops as Danville consolidates downtown and the Tobacco Warehouse District as the River District.

“I think people in other parts of Virginia think that we’re absolutely downtrodden,” Stratton says. And he wants people to know it’s just not so. 

Addition stories about the Danville area:
The game changer
Virginia International Raceway

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