Eco-savvy efforts challenge region’s button-down imageMarch 29, 2010 5:00 AM
by Lee Graves
When Tom Bowden hops astride one of his customized bikes — be it the 1985 Schwinn or the 1983 Fuji — to commute from his home in the West End to his job in downtown Richmond, he doesn’t expect much two-wheeled company.
“I don’t see a lot of bicyclers in the morning,” Bowden, a lawyer with Sands Anderson Marks & Miller, says about the 9-mile ride. “One day, I counted as many as 10 people on their bikes who looked like they were going somewhere with a purpose. I think that’s the most I’ve ever seen.”
The one exception is Bike to Work Day in May, a national effort with strong backing from Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones. And Bowden sees that as one of numerous positive signs. “I think Richmond is a much better cycling environment than it was, and it’s getting better all the time.”
The same can be said for efforts on many fronts to make the Richmond region more environmentally savvy, both as a place to live and a place to do business. Residents, officials and corporate leaders increasingly see clean technology, renewable energy and sustainable development as paths toward greener pastures.
Much like Bowden and his bikes, this often requires taking the old and making it new. Like turning some paved areas around Capitol Square into green corridors. Like turning vacant lots into community gardens. Like protecting parkland around the James River. And like the economic development effort designed to showcase and attract companies that take clean and green to heart.
Such efforts are changing what it means to live in the area. Perceptions of Richmond as a button-down town steeped in tradition and wreathed in tobacco smoke are shifting as its modest size, central location, family-friendly neighborhoods, many natural resources and rich history are yielding dividends.
“The way I describe it is this: Richmond is an incredibly comfortable place to live,” says Andrew Rose, president and CEO of Elephant Auto Insurance. “You have the right blend; it’s balanced. It has a small-city atmosphere so you don’t feel overrun, and you have the accessibility of everything.
“You’re an hour and a half from the beach, an hour and a half from the mountains, an hour and a half from [Washington] D.C. — you have everything you want.”
Rose led a nationwide search to locate the offices of Elephant, a subsidiary of Admiral Group, the third-largest auto insurer in the United Kingdom. In October, Elephant settled into quarters in Henrico County. The company has nearly 60 employees with plans to hire 40 more by the end of the year.
Elephant’s decision has good company, including:
• Sabra Dipping Co., a joint venture between PepsiCo and Strauss Group of Israel, which broke ground in January 2009 for a 110,000-square-foot, $59 million plant in Chesterfield County, expected to open in May.
• Bass Pro Shops, which opened a 150,000-square-foot store, the company’s 52nd, in Hanover County in 2008.
• MeadWestvaco, which recently moved into its headquarters to downtown Richmond. The 310,000-square-foot, 9-story building overlooks the James River and adds a new dimension to the downtown skyline.
MeadWestvaco’s presence carries particular weight. It is one of six Fortune 500 corporations based in the area, and its location spotlights the James, Richmond’s defining natural feature. “They wanted to make a difference in their community, and they put a statement on the river,” says Greg Wingfield, president and CEO of the Greater Richmond Partnership.
City officials also have made a statement about the river. They established conservation easements last year on 280 acres in the James River Park System. The action preserves the land for bikers, hikers, walkers, runners, birders and paddlers — not to mention the wildlife that also calls Richmond home.
The good news about living in the region has to be taken in the context of hard knocks suffered during the recession. Major employers Circuit City, LandAmerica Financial Group and Qimonda all disappeared at a cost of about 4,000 jobs. At year’s end, unemployment in the region stood at 7.8 percent, well above the Virginia rate of 6.7 percent.
While the financial, insurance and other components of the job market have shrunk, health care, education services and retail trade sectors have shown strength, according to Virginia Employment Commission data.
“Health care has grown across the country, but in Richmond we seem to have a greater concentration than in some other areas,” says Christine Chmura, president and senior economist of Chmura Economics & Analytics in Richmond.
Indeed, the top 20 private employers in the Richmond region in 2009, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, included the Virginia Commonwealth University Health System (No. 1), HCA Virginia Health System (No. 3) and Bon Secours Richmond Health System (No. 6). In addition, health insurer WellPoint (Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield) stood at No. 11, and Coventry Health Care tied for 40th.
The health-care sector will propel additional growth. Bon Secours, for example, is building a $30 million ambulatory care campus in Chesterfield County that is expected to employ 100 people. HCA plans a 97-bed, $183 million hospital on 60 acres in Goochland County, with completion in 2012. The VCU medical campus recently completed a 125,000-square-foot, $71.5 million molecular medicine research building, and plans are under way to construct a $158.6 million, 200,000-square-foot School of Medicine Education Building.
VCU has changed the face of the city. The university has built engineering, business and nursing schools and fueled development of the Virginia BioTechnology Research Park. It has grown to nine buildings and scores of tenants employing some 2,000 people. And as proudly proclaimed on a banner above Broad Street, VCU has declared 2010 the Year of the Environment to highlight the role of universities in improving sustainable practices.
Even the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts sees green as a primary color in its palette. Its expansion, to be completed in May, includes a 3.5-acre sculpture garden that officials say will provide “a refreshing urban green space” and “a relaxed outdoor oasis.”
The museum’s $150 million expansion is a major contribution to the cultural wealth of the region — and beyond. “We are proud that Virginia has the most comprehensive statewide art museum in the nation,” says Alex Nyerges, the museum’s director.
Also on the cultural front, Richmond CenterStage has blossomed in the heart of downtown, pumping fresh blood into the venerable Carpenter Theatre as part of a 179,000-square-foot complex of performance venues and community spaces.
Such amenities signal significant change, Chmura says. She recalls when the city skyline sported the headquarters of three major banks — all now parts of larger financial institutions. Just as the skyline has changed, the city has become more of a central location for cultural attractions and other amenities, she says. “Perhaps as a result of these things, we’ve seen a lot more people living in lofts and condos downtown than we have in the past.”
One thing hasn’t changed about Richmond — the river runs through it. On a warm weekend, the James draws scads of boaters, sunbathers and anglers. Serious white water awaits paddlers with the skills to shoot Hollywood Rapids or the Pipeline — and no other city in the country can claim such challenging white water in an urban environment.
Protecting land through the conservation easements says a lot about the value Richmonders place on quality of life, says Brian Mutchler, president of the James River Outdoor Coalition. “The recreational activities are a large part of why I made my home here,” he says. “Many people find this a boon for their mental as well as physical health, and I’d have to count myself among them.”
The river also has played a crucial role in the area’s history. When Christopher Newport and his band arrived at the fall line in 1607, they found impassable rapids and friendly Indians, both inducements to stop. The past is present in myriad ways around the region: re-enactments of Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty” speech at St. John’s Episcopal Church; a trail retracing the path of Capt. John Smith; and tours of Civil War battlefields and the Richmond slave trail.
Wingfield sees the region’s heritage serving the business community well. “Richmond has a Southern attitude but the efficiency of the North. We have our manners, but we always have been a business center, so we know how to get business done. This is in our DNA, a business culture that has been here for 400 years.”
For some entrepreneurs, that combination has spurred growth as the green movement has ripened. Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market in Richmond’s near West End has expanded in recent years, its bulletin board full of tips for growing, buying and eating locally. The Market Umbrella, started in 2008 to develop European-style farmers’ markets in the area, now boasts three regular sites, including Forest Hill and Bryan parks.
On other fronts, keeping the cogs of business turning has presented challenges during the recession. For a period, “the wheels were coming off,” Wingfield says, so he and others developed a 90-day action plan that included a Green Tech initiative.
Their efforts have generated ties to corporations in Europe and Asia. In addition, companies suffering hard times in California are eyeing lower costs and new opportunities in central Virginia. Results can be seen in the growth of a 134-acre Sustainability Park in Chesterfield and the opening of the Dominion GreenTech Incubator in Ashland.
Wingfield and other area leaders also are studying the region’s transportation picture for alternative, sustainable modes. In some ways, it’s a return to the vision of a city that had the nation’s first electric trolley system. Buck Ward, president of Segway of Richmond, leads a project to evaluate options, including becoming a test community for electric vehicles.
The program fits well with goals set by Mayor Jones and other city leaders. Sustainability initiatives range from conducting a green infrastructure assessment to developing a 20-year multi-modal transportation plan. “We’re looking at transportation in a more holistic way,” says Alicia Zatcoff, project development manager for the city.
Cycling figures prominently in those plans, and a vital spoke in the wheel is the Virginia Capital Trail. Begun in 2003 and scheduled for completion in 2014, the trail envisions a 55-mile bicycle and pedestrian path linking Richmond to Jamestown. Last year officials cut the ribbon on a 7.5-mile stretch in Charles City County and a half-mile section along the Richmond riverfront. “It’s just a half a mile, but symbolically it’s huge,” says Beth Weisbrod, executive director of the Virginia Capital Trail Foundation. She sees benefits not only for exercise enthusiasts and tourists but also as a commuter avenue and business generator.
“If you’re a bike-friendly city, it can have a serious impact on businesses and the quality of life,” says Champe Burnley, past president of the Richmond Area Bicycling Association and current president of the Virginia Bicycling Federation.
That outlook gets no argument from Bowden. A specialist in entrepreneurial law, he sees a happy marriage of green initiatives and economic growth. “There are a lot of businesses getting started that are looking at that as an opportunity.”