By Paula C. Squires
Longtime Rockbridge County businessman and former Supervisor Bobby Berkstresser announced Wednesday that he and a group of Shenandoah Valley investment partners are finalizing plans for an $11 million regional artisan and cultural center that they would like to open in summer 2014.
The center would be located on eight acres at the Raphine interchange off Interstate 81/64 at exit 205 in northern Rockbridge County. Berkstresser said in an interview with Virginia Business that the project would be near White’s Travel Plaza, which he purchased in 2010. “White’s is on 23 acres. I have another 190 acres. It will be right behind it.”
Berkstresser also owns Lee-Hi Travel Plaza in Lexington, a local crane and excavation service and rental properties. He’s a past chairman and member of the board of directors for the National Association of Truck Stop Operators (NATSO), a national trade association in Washington, D.C., that represents truck stops and travel plazas.
According to Berkstresser, a group of about 10 people, “business people in and around the Staunton and Lexington area,” approached him about the Raphine project after he put an idea together for a made-in-Virginia mile. “It made sense … My whole mindset is that I want to create a destination,” he said.
“We intend for this center to become a complete destination in itself – an attractive, must-do gateway to Rockbridge County for travelers from all over the nation. They’ll be able to enjoy everything from hands-on artisan demonstrations, live music and Virginia-grown foods to nature trails and other outdoor experiences.”
According to the Office of Community Development in Rockbridge County, the project is being put together as a public-private partnership. Brandy Flint, an administrative assistant for the office, said backers are going to apply for grants to help with the initial construction costs for a 24,000-square-foot building. The eight acres would need to be rezoned from an industrial to a business zoning, she said.
Besides Berkstresser, the other investors are Gordon Barlow, Gen. Ted Shuey, Thomas Simons, Teresa Haggerty, T.J. Wright, Robert Hubbard, Mack Wyatt, James Putrese, and Guest Services Inc., a hospitality and management service company based out of Fairfax.
Berkstresser said investors are still exploring financing. “It won’t be all from one source. It’s been discussed with multiple sources, and we are pretty well assured that the financing is there ... We’ve done a lot of work over the last two years to get to this point.”
The idea behind AWASAW Artisan Center ―designed along the lines of the popular Heartwood and Tamarack artisan centers ― is to provide travelers a cultural and culinary experience of the Shenandoah Valley while supporting local farmers, winemakers, artists and craftspeople.
Plans call for an artisan demonstration area, a Virginia arts and crafts retail center, a high-tech tourist information center, a “Taste of Virginia” culinary experience with a Virginia-made food and wine shop; a frozen dessert parlor and food court featuring seasonal foods, an “Experience Virginia” plasma-screen theater and a family-friendly experiential science exhibit.
Ronnie Campbell, chairman of the Rockbridge County Board of Supervisors, said the center would equate to a boost in the local economy: “This smart development will give folks one more excellent reason to merge off the interstate – ultimately supporting local businesses and contributing to our local economy,” he said in a statement.
Lexington firm Perkins & Orrison is developing the site plan. First Design of Waynesboro is designing the building floor plan and elevations.
As part of an economic impact study included in the project’s planning, the partnership also plans to conduct a traffic survey this spring at the I-81/64 exit 205 interchange. Berkstresser says about 55,000 vehicles a day pass by the exit. The investor group projects that the center could attract as many as 500,000 travelers annually.
According to a release from the Office of Community Development, officials from around Virginia and in Rockbridge County participated in a three-year study to see if an artisan center would dovetail with state and local economic and tourism plans. It said that state officials in the community development, transportation and tourism fields have pledged support with marketing and signing initiatives and inclusion on the Virginia Artisan Trail, which is currently in development.
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