Changing of the guard

Longtime economic development leaders step down

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Jennifer Wakefield is the interim leader of the Greater Richmond Partnership.
Photo by Shandell Taylor

The departure of two longtime economic development leaders marks a changing of the guard in the Richmond area.

Barry Matherly, CEO of the Greater Richmond Partnership (GRP), left at the end of December to head a similar economic development group for 11 southeastern Michigan counties.

Also, Gary McLaren, executive director of the Henrico County Economic Development Authority, announced in November that he would retire early this year from the post he has held for nearly a decade.

During his three years as CEO of GRP, Matherly helped recruit businesses creating nearly 11,000 jobs and generating $643 million in wages. GRP markets Richmond and Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico counties to business prospects.

Under Matherly, the Richmond region aggressively sought foreign investment. At any given time, about 70 percent of the companies looking at the region are based outside the U.S., Matherly says. About 200 international businesses already have a presence in the area.

Jennifer Wakefield, the partnership’s senior vice president of marketing, is GRP’s interim leader. She says the region is primed for additional “middle-office,” or division headquarters, jobs.

She cites a recent study by Wadley Donovan Gutshaw Consulting comparing the Richmond area with Charlotte, N.C.; Nashville, Tenn.; Columbus, Ohio; Jacksonville, Fla.; and other cities. “We were best positioned for middle-office jobs along the East Coast,” Wakefield says.

McLaren’s tenure as Henrico’s economic development director was marked by a steady rise in the county’s fortunes. In 2017, Facebook announced plans to build a $750 million data center in Henrico’s White Oak Technology Park, along with an additional $250 million investment to build solar facilities to help reduce the impact of the facility’s power usage.

Less than a year later, Facebook said it planned to spend an additional $750 million to expand the data center. The investments will make Facebook the largest taxpayer in Henrico, county officials say. Facebook anticipates that the first phase of its data center will begin operations this year.

“I got to Henrico in 2009 at the height of the recession,” McLaren recalls. “Henrico had just lost 4,000 jobs.”

Today, the county has the second-highest number of jobs of any locality in Virginia, real estate assessments that have grown for six consecutive years and the top ranking in the state in terms of sales-per-capita of the top 10 taxable sales producing Virginia localities in 2017, officials have said.

In Chesterfield County, economic development director Garrett Hart reported strong results last year. The county saw $100 million in capital investment, 353 new jobs and 1.16 million square feet of new building space.

Chesterfield continues to add jobs and new businesses resulting in the largest employment and number of new businesses in the county’s history in 2018, Hart says.

Lynchburg area
In the Lynchburg area, Liberty University’s continued growth is a big part of the region’s economic picture.

In October the university, which has more than 15,000 students in Lynchburg and more than 85,000 online, said it was creating a technology park behind its Center for Energy Research & Education in Bedford County and would establish its School of Engineering on its main campus in Lynchburg.

“What’s really fantastic is that Liberty University has become a research and development university,” says Megan Lucas, CEO and chief economic development officer for the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance. 

Liberty and other colleges and universities in the region increasingly contribute to a talent pipeline that is critical in attracting companies to the area, Lucas says.

Charlottesville area
In the Charlottesville area, represented by the Central Virginia Partnership for Economic Development, President Helen Cauthen boasts that the region now has three Tier 4 sites ready for development. It previously had none.

Tier 4, according to the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, indicates that a site has been certified as “infrastructure ready.”  In layman’s terms, that means that a site has been graded and utilities such as water and sewer are in place or soon will be. “Shovel ready” is the Tier 5 level in which all permits are in place.

One of the area’s success stories last year was the growth of WillowTree, a mobile applications developer, whose relocation from downtown Charlottesville to the old Woolen Mills factory in Albemarle County is expected to create 200 jobs. Currently the company has about 320 employees.

“We were looking for a more central campuslike experience and Woolen Mills, with wonderful assistance from the county and the state, has become that project for us,” says Tobias Dengel, WillowTree’s CEO.

Central Virginia’s recent deals

Company Location #Jobs
Facebook Henrico County 200
WillowTree Albemarle County 200
Dominion Outsourcing Henrico County 190
TemperPack Henrico County 141
Ocean Network Express Richmond 129
Convergys Corp. Lynchburg 100
Paymerang Chesterfield County 100
Classic Granite & Marble Powhatan County 100
West Creek Financial Inc. Henrico County 100

Sources: Virginia Economic Development Partnership, Greater Richmond Partnership, Lynchburg Business Alliance

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