Culpeper cultivates a following on Northern Virginia’s edge
- December 29, 2011
It would be a stretch to call Culpeper County a suburb of Washington, D.C. The city is about 60 miles away, so Culpeper is more like a suburb of Northern Virginia. But that is just fine for Norm Laudermilch, COO of the Terremark Federal Group. Even though most of the federal and commercial customers that lease space in the Terremark data center campus in Culpeper are in and around the nation’s capital, they want their data kept out in the countryside in a safer place.
That’s why Terremark, a provider of IT infrastructure services, decided to build in Culpeper. “It met some key security criteria that we had,” Laudermilch says. For one, it’s outside the “blast zone” area around D.C., something federal clients want. Plus, it’s rural enough to make security easier to provide. In the past few years, Terremark has built three 50,000-square-foot data center buildings and has done site preparation for a fourth building. The project’s total cost is an estimated $500 million. “We’ll continue that work and complete it based on customer demand over the next few months,” he says. “We’re in constant growth mode in Culpeper.”
For better or worse, being close to the Washington region, or being just far enough away, is what shapes the Culpeper region’s economy. The location has produced rapid growth in the past decade — its 2010 population was more than 46,000, which is 36 percent more than it was 10 years ago. But it’s still largely rural, and farming is a big part of the local economy. “I live out in the country, and when I drive into work I pass more cows and farms than I do people,” says Carl Sachs, the county’s director of economic development.
The town of Culpeper has been a big draw in recent years. Its population has risen 69 percent since 2000 to more than 16,000 people. The town is popular with tourists and day-trippers, who are drawn by the relatively new upscale restaurants and inns and lots of shopping. “That downtown area has just been tremendous,” says Greg Yates, who owns a real estate business and has worked in the Culpeper area for more than 30 years.
As is true in other localities on the edge of a metropolitan region, a lot of workers here commute to jobs outside the county — about 46 percent of Culpeper’s work force of 23,000 do so, according to a county study. Unemployment lately is 6.4 percent. Sachs says the county markets its proximity to Washington, which isn’t that far a drive. The town of Culpeper, close to the center of the county, is the crossroads for a number of major roads, including U.S. 29, which connects to Interstate 66, one of the major highways through neighboring Prince William and Fairfax counties and into the city. “We’re close enough to Northern Virginia and Washington, and close enough to do business face-to-face if you need to,” he says.
Sachs also pitches the county’s commuting work force, which is about 10,500 people, according to 2009 data. A county survey shows that many of them, 81 percent of respondents, would prefer a shorter commute, taking a similar job in Culpeper if one were available.
Sachs says the county has set aside five “technology zones” along its major highways in hopes of attracting employers. Terremark moved into one of those zones just outside the town of Culpeper in 2008 and is eligible for up to $3 million from the county, Sachs says. The county has paid about $1 million so far, he says. The incentive program — created by the state — lets localities reimburse selected employers for some taxes they pay. “We think it’s a smart approach, because we’re never in a situation where we offer incentives to [business expansions] that don’t happen,” Sachs says.
Terremark’s Laudermilch cites a couple of other factors that helped attract his company. Culpeper has plenty of electric power, provided by Rappahannock Electric Cooperative and Virginia Dominion Power. It also has ample fiber-optic infrastructure. “There are very few communities in the country that are rural enough to meet [our] security requirements and have all the communications facilities that we need,” he says. “Three of the major telecom providers were already here. For us that’s an amazing advantage.”
Terremark has about 100 people working at its data center campus now and expects that total to rise as a fourth center is built. Eventually, Laudermilch says, the company’s 60-acre campus will have 11 buildings.
He says hiring hasn’t been a challenge. “The nice thing about Culpeper is that it’s still close enough to the metro area that there are a lot of highly skilled tech people who commute to Northern Virginia,” he says. “We find a lot of our employees right in Culpeper and the surrounding area.”
Like a lot of suburban/rural counties, the biggest employer here is the public school system, which has nearly 1,200 employees. The county’s employment base is relatively diverse and includes companies such as Euro-Composites, based in Luxembourg. A year ago it announced plans for an $11.25 million expansion of its Culpeper facility, where it produces the honeycomb composite components used in military aircraft built by Lockheed Martin. The expansion will bring about 70 new jobs, increasing the work force to about 150 people.
Manufacturing has a strong foothold here as well, with companies like Continental Automotive, which expanded its operations here in 2010. It now employs about 220 people, making a component of antilock brake systems. The county also has a new location for Hardwood Artisans, a furniture maker that is moving its manufacturing work from Woodbridge and should be in operation in January.
One of the downsides of Culpeper’s location is the fallout from the recession, which hurt the housing market here. “We took a pretty big hit with the [real estate] bubble bursting,” Sachs says. “We had a lot of foreclosures” in the new developments built to handle the county’s rapid growth in the past decade. “It’s left a lot of the houses vacant and affected the market for new construction. We’re slowly coming out of that; we’re starting to see some growth but it’s nowhere near what it was.”
Downtown with curb appeal
Downtown Culpeper, though, has seen its stock rising lately. There are restaurants such as Foti’s, opened in 2005 by chef and owner Foteos “Frank” Maragos, who was a chef at the famed Inn at Little Washington. Another restaurant, It’s About Thyme, offers European fare. The owners of that restaurant also opened the Thyme Market next door two years ago, a kind of European bistro with outdoor seating. “It’s turned into a little Friday night hotspot,” says Lori Sorrentino, the town’s tourism director. “It’s those types of little places that are popping up here and there and gaining the attention of not only people in the region, but also in D.C. and Northern Virginia.”
The town has also benefited from the presence of Amtrak’s Northeast Regional line, which runs between Lynchburg and Boston and stops at the restored downtown train station.
Culpeper also was in the running for some national exposure on television. The BBC and the Oprah Winfrey Network named Culpeper as one of the contenders for a new reality series titled “Lovetown, USA.” In mid-November producers were in town to recruit participants for the show, which will try to match couples between the ages of 18 and 60. Town officials, however, got word in early December that it would not be included in the series. Because of a tight filming schedule, the producers decided they couldn’t take a chance on interruptions caused by snow. Culpeper was the northernmost locality
being considered for the series.
Despite the loss of “Lovetown,” Culpeper’s downtown area does have a certain appeal as a TV show setting. Yates’ wife, Liz, operates a small “boutique hotel” called Suites at 249, in a restored brick building on Davis Street in the heart of Culpeper’s Historic District. The hotel got a load of free publicity recently when it was included in a feature on “easy road trips” in the October issue of Travel and Leisure magazine, which led to mentions on CNN and NBC’s “Today Show.”
Renovation also is under way at a former Pitts Theatre, which was built in 1938. The building will reopen after an 18-month renovation as the State Theatre, with 550 seats for movies and live performances. Yates bought the building in 2004 and donated it to the State Theatre Foundation, where he is on the board of directors.
Yates believes the town’s decision in the mid-1980s to join the Virginia Main Street Program and launch the Culpeper Renaissance group has paid off. “Even through the recession, when a storefront is vacant, there are multiple people who want to be on Davis Street,” he says. “People want to be where they can walk to things. You’ve got this major renaissance of people coming back downtown.”
The town might not host many large employers, but it seems to help attract them to the county. Laudermilch of Terremark says the town “is a very culturally diverse community that was perfect for a high-tech work force.” Terremark “is a big supporter of this work-where-you-live idea,” so the character of the community did matter, he says. “We’re proud to be here.”