Communities create projects that promise to attract jobsJuly 30, 2012 6:00 AM
by Tara Bozick
Gone are the days when tobacco filled the warehouses along the Dan River. Now, hidden behind the brick walls of the former Old Belt 1 tobacco plant buzzes what city leaders hope is a catalyst for Danville’s economic growth: a supercomputer handling vast amounts of data.
Old Belt 1 is now home to the Center for Applied High Performance Computing, which is managed by science, technology and strategy nonprofit Noblis, based in Falls Church. Noblis and global supercomputer leader Cray Inc. partnered with state and city leaders to establish the center last year.
The center’s supercomputer excels at tasks such as pattern matching, scenario development, behavioral prediction, anomaly identification and graph analysis. It will serve clients in a wide variety of fields such as computational biology, DNA sequencing, air traffic management, semantic web applications, fraud detection and counterterrorism.
Within three years, the center will employ 15 software developers and mathematicians, approaching an $8 million total investment as business ramps up. But the center’s ultimate purpose is to draw other technology companies to Danville. “We can only hope we are a grain of sand that causes an avalanche of new technology-related jobs to come to Danville,” says the center’s manager, software architect Will Mitchell.
The supercomputer center is just one example of how Southern Virginia is leveraging public-private projects to attract new-economy jobs to a region rife with chronically high unemployment. With the help of grants from the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission, cities and counties in the region also are developing fiber-optic broadband networks, creating “megasites” for major industrial prospects and beefing up educational opportunities to train a better prepared work force.
While a $3 million grant from the Tobacco Commission cinched the creation of the supercomputer center in Danville, a long-term investment in high-speed broadband infrastructure allowed it to work.
To bridge the rural-urban broadband gap, the Tobacco Commission invested nearly $60 million alongside $35 million in federal grants so the Mid-Atlantic Broadband Cooperative (MBC) could lay 1,500 miles of fiber-optic cable throughout Southern Virginia.
In addition, Danville has invested $12 million since 2004 to create its own 135-mile fiber-optic network, nDanville, which connects to MBC. City offices, schools and 120 businesses, including the supercomputer center, are connected not only to nDanville, but to cities like Washington, Atlanta and major Internet hubs.
Broadband attracts data center
Fiber infrastructure, along with almost $7 million in incentives, is how Mecklenburg County in 2010 landed Microsoft Corp.’s $499 million data center project.
Boydton Industrial Park had a 10-year-old, ready-to-go site because it had lost out on landing a traditional manufacturer, recalls Mecklenburg County Economic Development Director Angie Kellett. As a result, the Microsoft deal came together within six months, with MBC working to extend its network to the site while Dominion Virginia Power worked overtime on the power connection.
Microsoft plans to employ 50 people in Boydton in the first phase of the project, but most of the data center’s local economic effect so far has come from the site’s 400 construction workers. They have filled 50 rental properties, and many eat in local restaurants, Kellett says.
The Microsoft project could attract other data centers to Southern Virginia, she says. “It sheds a light on this area that helps everybody. Now we’re all kind of recognized as being near Microsoft.”
Data centers, in fact, represent one recruiting target for Leigh Cockram, head of the Southern Virginia Regional Alliance, a regional economic development organization that kicked off industry recruiting efforts last year.
Fiber infrastructure also will enable the National Tire Research Center to open this fall at Virginia International Raceway in Halifax County. The center needs high-speed broadband to send tire test data to servers in Blacksburg, says Executive Director Frank Della Pia. The facility, which boasts the latest equipment in testing tire performance and efficiency, is a result of a $14 million funding partnership involving General Motors, Virginia Tech and the Virginia Tobacco Commission.
Companies would pay the center for independent testing and math modeling or simulation services. Della Pia says the center is on track to generate more than $14 million from research within five years.
More than 180 jobs would be created by 2020, but Della Pia believes the impact of the research center could mean even more jobs if companies relocate to be near it.
Angling for a big catch
While the supercomputer and research center aim to attract smaller high-tech companies, Cockram and the regional marketing alliance — extending from Patrick County to Halifax County — work to attract large job creators such as paper products, chemicals, automotive and aerospace industries for the region’s developing “megasites.”
Money from the Tobacco Commission, $28.6 million to date, is enabling the development of three megasites in Henry, Pittsylvania and Greensville counties that would offer huge ready-to-go tracts of land to a “game-changer” industry prospect. This type of company would invest hundreds of millions of dollars, and create more than 1,000 jobs, says Danville Economic Development Director Jeremy Stratton.
The 3,500-acre Berry Hill Mega Park in Pittsylvania County and the 1,545-acre Mid-Atlantic Advanced Manufacturing Center in Greensville County will help Southern Virginia compete with the entire Southeast, says Liz Povar of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership.
Those sites, plus the 726-acre Commonwealth Crossing Business Centre in Henry County, will be marketed to advanced manufacturers. The Pittsylvania and Greensville sites also are geared toward automotive or steel plants and large energy production.
The Berry Hill site attracted interest initially from an automotive company facility, but that prospect eventually located to a more developed site, Stratton says. But it’s still early in the marketing process as Berry Hill awaits megasite certification from McCallum Sweeney Consulting, a Greenville, S.C., economic development consulting firm. The Greensville site currently is the only certified megasite in Virginia.
“This is definitely not a short-term [effort],” Povar says. “It’s a long-term commitment, and it will take a very unique business client who needs that property.”
Developing skilled workers
But advanced manufacturers won’t come to a region without skilled workers. That’s where New College Institute’s proposed expansion in downtown Martinsville comes in. The addition of 50,000 square feet on three floors could provide space for advanced manufacturing labs through Virginia State University, as well as technology and health-care classes.
NCI Executive Director William Wampler Jr., a former state senator, believes the expansion can help Southern Virginia attract more high-tech industries, such as suppliers for the new Rolls-Royce plant in Prince George County.
New College, a higher-education center opened in 2006, partners with regional colleges to offer courses. The institute took an “aggressive” posture because local companies such as titanium manufacturer RTI International Metals need to fill jobs today, Wampler says.
Just as the New College expansion is expected to help Martinsville Uptown’s revitalization efforts, Averett University sought to invigorate downtown Danville by opening a Riverview Campus for its health sciences and graduate and professional studies programs. The site of the once-vacant former Dimon tobacco company headquarters is now shared by Averett and the Danville Regional Foundation.
Averett President Tiffany Franks believes the downtown commitment will lead to other investments in the renamed River District, which is developing a master plan for long-term growth. Franks believes 200 students and staff studying and working downtown can help attract and keep young professionals in Danville.
When business prospects visit the city, they are turned off by empty, dilapidated buildings. That’s why the Danville Regional Foundation (DRF), which manages a $200 million endowment from the sale of the local hospital, helped the city purchase the run-down, seven-story Downtowner Motor Inn on Main Street so it could be demolished.
Communities that transformed their economies started with downtown revitalization, says DRF President and CEO Karl Stauber.
“The clear message now is this is a community that has a vision of the future and is reinvesting in itself,” Stauber says.
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