Lynchburg retains small-town ambience while major employers continue to growSeptember 28, 2010 6:00 AM
by Bryan Gentry
During the workweek, Madalina Erighin and her husband, Michael Scarangella, help design a reactor that could help reinvigorate the nuclear power industry.
After work and on weekends, their energy focuses on the great outdoors. After just a few minutes of travel, Erighin and Scarangella and their 6-year-old son, Matthew, can bike on a forest trail or hike in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The Lynchburg area has proved to be an inviting spot for them. It offers them a chance to pursue their engineering careers while enjoying a small city life with many options for outdoor activities. “This is the place to be for that,” says Erighin, who moved with her family from Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., to Lynchburg earlier this year to work for Babcock & Wilcox Co.
Although area unemployment has risen in recent months to 8.1 percent, the factors that drew Erighin’s family to Lynchburg —its growing nuclear industry and the region’s “livability” — have buttressed the regional economy during the nation’s deep recession and slow recovery.
Bryan David, executive director of the Region 2000 Economic Development Council, says one of the area’s key strengths is its ability to attract people who want high-paying jobs in industries such as nuclear services or health care without big-city hassles. “We offer those opportunities here, but at a much more manageable scale than in a large metropolitan area,” he says.
Lynchburg is a hub in Virginia’s nuclear industry, in spite of being more than 100 miles from the nearest nuclear power plant. That all started when Babcock & Wilcox built a factory in Campbell County in the 1950s with a few hundred employees.
Ten years ago, B&W employed about 1,950 people in the region, and Areva, another nuclear services company, employed about 1,350. Today, Lynchburg-area employment has grown to 2,450 at B&W and 2,100 at Areva, an increase of more than 1,200 jobs. B&W spokesman Jud Simmons says nuclear engineer salaries in the Lynchburg area start between $60,000 and $70,000. Meanwhile, Lynchburg’s median household income in 2008 was about $38,000.
Much of the recent growth has come from a new push to build nuclear reactors on American soil after a hiatus of more than 30 years. Areva has designed a 1,600-megawatt U.S. Evolutionary Power Reactor that it is seeking to build at several sites. Meanwhile, B&W is working on mPower — a scalable, modular reactor designed with smaller utilities in mind.
Charlotte, N.C.-based B&W already has 50 engineers in Lynchburg working on the mPower reactor design, with plans for up to 200. It also is building a prototype of the reactor to install in the Center for Advanced Engineering and Research, which is under construction in Bedford County (Click here for related story). B&W will run tests there to support its application to license the reactor.
Brandon Bethards, B&W’s chief executive officer, says the Lynchburg area “is a nuclear business hub that attracts and welcomes talented employees with critical skills,” he says. “In addition, officials in the area have been extremely helpful in securing new space for expansions to support our commercial nuclear growth.”
B&W spokesman Jud Simmons adds that Lynchburg’s quality of life helps it retain employees. “Having people stick around a long time really benefits our company and others,” he said. “I think Lynchburg is a good spot for that.”
Likewise, companies such as B&W make Lynchburg a more desirable place to live, says Daronda Lancaster, a planner on the mPower project. She grew up in Lynchburg, studied engineering at Virginia Tech and immediately returned to her hometown. “I was thrilled when I got a job with B&W, knowing it was a company I could grow up and retire from,” she says.
The first impression of many job candidates is that Lynchburg is small town, says Jeff Halfinger, B&W’s vice president of technology development. “People look at it differently than going into Washington or Charlotte, or some place like that,” he says. However, “Lynchburg kind of grows on them.”
Madalina Erighin and her husband interviewed with B&W earlier this year. They were impressed with the mPower project but also with the beauty of the Lynchburg area. Since moving here, the family has visited Crabtree Falls, Peaks of Otter and the Blackwater Creek Trail that runs through Lynchburg. “I still have a pretty big list at home of places to go,” she says.
She also was pleased to find that Lynchburg’s cost of living is much lower than in her former hometown. A cost of living calculator offered by the website Sperling Best Places shows that Palm Beach Gardens has an overall cost index of 112 compared with 89 for Lynchburg. The index includes food, housing, utilities, transportation and miscellaneous costs.
Erighin and Scarangella have not yet bought a house in Lynchburg, but they have started looking at area neighborhoods where they might want to live. Dee Meredith, president of the Lynchburg Association of Realtors, says the median home price in the area in the second quarter was $151,600. By comparison, the median price for Virginia during that period was almost $250,000.
Lynchburg’s home prices “beckon people to our area,” Meredith says. “The relocating people that I deal with in my business are amazed at what $300,000 will buy here as opposed to where they’re moving from,” she says. “It’s always more house for the money.”
In addition to lower housing costs, regional officials cite local health-care and educational institutions as other major contributors to the region’s quality of life. They also happen to be major players in its economy.
Centra Health, a nonprofit health-care system, runs two hospitals in Lynchburg and employs more than 5,000 people in the region. Recently, Hospital & Health Networks magazine named Lynchburg General Hospital and Virginia Baptist Hospital as being among the nation’s best hospitals for use of information technology and wireless communications.
In the education field, the Lynchburg area is home to four, four-year colleges and a community college, which are among the region’s largest employers. Liberty University alone employs nearly 4,000 people in the region.
A study by Mangum Economic Consulting estimated LU’s total impact on the local economy last year at $217 million through employment and spending by students and visitors.
The colleges also supply a work force for local companies, with an emphasis on engineering. Students can now receive engineering degrees through the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech and four other colleges without leaving the campus of Central Virginia Community College. LU and Sweet Briar College also have engineering programs. Many at Lynchburg-area colleges remain in the area to fill local jobs after graduation.
Priscilla King, for example, remained in Lynchburg after attending LU in the mid-1990s. “It was the job opportunities here in Lynchburg that naturally paved a way for me to stay,” says King, who works as a recruiter for local companies.
Recently, her husband’s job moved them to Danville, but she continues to stay in Lynchburg a few days each week. “We have decided not to totally uproot ourselves as we have a strong personal and professional network here in Lynchburg,” she says.
The jobs and quality of life in the Lynchburg area help garner high rankings on national lists such as Forbes’ Best Places for Business and Careers. That list ranks metro areas on factors like cost of doing business, wage growth, educational attainment and crime rate. For the last three years, Lynchburg has ranked in the top 100 of the nation’s 200 largest metros. In 2008 and 2010 it was in the top 30.
Bryan David, the Region 2000 Economic Development Council executive, says that exposure helps spread Lynchburg’s reputation. “As we, year in and year out, show up in the top tier of those rankings, that’s getting people’s attention.”
He also says that local companies will continue to draw people to the region by hiring them.
After working several months at B&W, Madalina Erighin believes the region will keep growing because the nuclear technology being developed in Lynchburg will succeed. “I do believe it will play a role in the future of the world, not just this country,” she says. “That future is not very far away.”
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