Regions Shenandoah Valley

12-acre travel center opens near Harrisonburg

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Print this page by James Heffernan

A new roadside landmark has taken shape on Interstate 81 near Harrisonburg.

Knoxville, Tenn.-based Pilot Flying J recently opened a 12-acre travel center off U.S. 11, just south of I-81 Exit 251. In addition to offering gasoline, a diesel fueling station and a convenience store, the travel center features a Subway restaurant and showers for long-haul truckers passing through the Shenandoah Valley. The center employs 55 people.

A byproduct of the travel center’s opening has been road improvements that could help spur local economic development in an area already seeing rapid residential growth.

In approving the request to rezone property for the travel center, the Rockingham County Board of Supervisors required that Pilot Flying J help fund a number of infrastructure changes, including widening portions of North Valley Pike (U.S. 11) and installing traffic lights at the I-81 ramps. “It will certainly jumpstart development,” says local real estate developer Bill Neff Sr., who is leasing the property to Pilot Flying J.

Pilot Flying J, the largest travel center operator in North America, traces its roots to the opening of a single gas station in Gate City in 1958. Beginning in the 1980s, Pilot Corp. founder Jim Haslam’s sons Bill and Jimmy took the business from a gas station-convenience store model to a travel center concept with branded fast-food restaurants.

The company, which merged with rival Flying J Inc. in 2010, is the largest nontraditional franchisee of Subway and also features Arby’s, Taco Bell, KFC, Pizza Hut, Dairy Queen and Chester’s Chicken restaurants in its stores.

While not intended for overnight stays, Pilot Flying J travel centers offer shower facilities for professional truck drivers. In July, the company announced it will invest $49 million by the end of 2013 to upgrade all 4,400 existing showers within its network.

The new travel center is one of 13 Pilot Flying J locations in Virginia, including Greenville, Staunton and Winchester. The busy I-81 corridor also includes a number of Pilot Flying J competitors, such as the Liberty travel plaza at Exit 257 and the Southside Diner/Travel Center on the south end of Harrisonburg. Still, Neff said, there’s room for at least one more facility in the central Shenandoah Valley.

“They’re a strong company, and they know their business,” he says. “This isn’t their first rodeo.”

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