Charlottesville’s character bolsters new-age businessesJune 29, 2011 6:00 AM
by Carlos Santos
Zach Buckner says Charlottesville’s quirky, college-town personality allowed his offbeat food distribution business to flourish.
“Jefferson was a Renaissance man, and he built a Renaissance college, and so many of us students within [the area] have made this a bit of a Renaissance town,’’ says Buckner, the founder and CEO of Retail Relay Inc.
“Charlottesville is an ‘I’ll try this’ kind of town,” Buckner says. “I’m not sure this idea would have worked in any other place. Charlottesville’s got a lot of experimenters. It’s the sort of place that embraces a new idea.”
Buckner devised a plan for his company, which is marketed as Relay Foods, when he tired of driving up U.S. 29 just for some milk from Kroger or screws from Lowe’s.
“Distribution is amazingly efficient from farm to grocery store,’’ Buckner says. “But efficiency stops at the grocery store.” So Buckner, an electrical engineer and entrepreneur, conjured up Relay, which plays off people’s dislike of wasting time and their desire for fresh food.
The business allows consumers to buy groceries online and pick them up at pre-determined, convenient locations — packaged, fresh and ready to go. Relay recruits vendors, such as grocery stores, farms and restaurants, for the food it purchases.
Business has grown steadily since he opened shop two years ago, mostly by word of mouth. Relay recently expanded its operation to Richmond, where business also is growing rapidly.
As are other fresh-food businesses in the region. The Charlottesville region, which includes the city and the counties of Albemarle, Greene, Nelson and Fluvanna, boasts eight farmers markets. Annual revenues from the Charlottesville downtown farmers market alone topped $1 million in 2010.
And a nonprofit group called the Local Food Hub is purchasing locally grown produce from more than 50 small family farms within 100 miles of Charlottesville. The group then sells that food to more than 100 large institutions in the area, including public schools and hospitals.
“We’re lucky to live in an area where people know the importance of local food,” says Emily Manley, the community outreach manager for the Food Hub. “We’re helping farmers access these large customers, which lets the farmers concentrate on farming.”
The “locavore” movement — and the support for those types of businesses — dovetails well with how the city sees itself: as a well-off, educated, liberal enclave that thinks unconventionally. The city, for example, has a “free speech” wall in front of City Hall where rants against the mayor and other officials are scrawled.
The city’s public arts program allows artists to display their work at key locations in the city. The City Council worries about the poor, the environment and even its trees, and has worked to support free medical and dental clinics as well as homeless shelters. It’s a touchy-feely, warm kind of place that some critics call in jest, a “socialist republic.”
Critics, however, say Charlottesville’s business climate is anything but warm. The high-profile symbol of that sentiment is the 44-year-old embattled plan to build the Meadowcreek Parkway.
The parkway is meant to connect the northern, heavily populated area of Albemarle with downtown. The county’s 1.4-mile section was built over the winter but is closed to traffic awaiting the construction of the two-thirds-mile-long section of the parkway in the city. Opponents have filed lawsuits to prevent its construction.
“The more citified you become, the less attractive you become,” says Rich Collins, a former University of Virginia professor of urban and environmental planning who has helped lead the charge against the parkway. “It may detract from the vitality of downtown. Young people want art and culture, not high rises and big banks.”
Timothy Hulbert, the head of the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce, takes the opposite position. “Stopping things has become an American illness. It only takes a handful of determined people,” he says. “In order for any business center, any economic center to thrive and compete, it needs to have access. Access to downtown Charlottesville is constricted.”
Proponents also say the parkway will eliminate congestion, which hinders commuters who work downtown. Construction of the city’s section of the parkway is supposed to begin this summer, though Collins warned it might be delayed because of the lawsuits and a council that reluctantly voted to approve the parkway.
While Charlottesville’s business climate is debated, Albemarle is touting its business-friendly attitude. In August, the Board of Supervisors approved an economic vitality plan meant to loosen restrictions on businesses.
New development includes a major development on U.S. 29 near the city boundary. The project, called the Shops at Stonefield, will include 270,000 square feet of commercial and retail space. Tenants will include Regal Cinema, a Trader Joe’s grocery store and a 135-room hotel, according to a county news release. The first phase is scheduled for completion by November of 2012. Construction of town homes and apartments will follow.
The county has continued to push for easier access to downtown Charlottesville, where many county residents work and shop. And despite the access debate, the downtown pedestrian mall is doing well. Restaurants, especially on weekends, are packed, helped by a new surge of interest in the downtown area by U.Va. students. Four new restaurants are opening or planning to open. Store vacancies on the mall hover at only 7 percent, says Ric Barrick, a spokesman for the city.
A new project just to the east end of the pedestrian mall is slated to bring more than 300 condos to the downtown area. The Coal Tower Project, named for a nearby abandoned coal tower, will also extend Water Street (which parallels the mall to the south) about 2,000 feet to Carlton Avenue. It will offer a biking, walking and stroller trail — all aimed to make downtown more pedestrian friendly and will eventually connect to the Rivanna River. The $40 million project by developer Coran Capshaw “is the biggest ever for the city,’’ says Barrick. Its start awaits federal funding.
Another watershed event will ensue when Martha Jefferson Hospital moves in August to its new 500,000-square-foot, $275 million facility on an 88-acre site on Pantops Mountain, just east of Charlottesville in Albemarle.
The hospital, which recently merged with the Sentara Healthcare system based in Hampton Roads, sold its downtown campus to developers for $6.5 million last year and is selling another 26 parcels of downtown property for about $11 million.
Over at U.Va., the school celebrated in April the opening of the five-story, 150,000-square-foot Emily Couric Clinical Cancer Center. The center, named for the Virginia state senator who died of pancreatic cancer in 2001 at the age of 54, is designed to provide comprehensive cancer care to patients.
Overall, the Charlottesville region’s economy seems to have stabilized, already protected in part by the insular nature of a college town whose main economic engine is a huge university. The Charlottesville Area Association of Realtors reported recently that the number of home sales in the first quarter of the year was slightly above last year’s first quarter. Hulbert says retail sales in Charlottesville and Albemarle rose 5.5 percent in the first quarter over last year. “Retail sales have been up 10 months in a row,” he says.
Hulbert said the growth of the defense industry in the region is also bolstering the economy. He estimates that defense jobs, at the National Ground Intelligence Center and the Joint Use Intelligence Analysis Facility and other defense-related businesses in Albemarle, will top 3,000 soon. Many of those jobs offer average salaries of $80,000 a year.
“It’s a whole new industry,” Hulbert says. “It’s having a big impact here.”
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