A bend in the river
Danville’s economy rushes from trickle to flow
An out-of-town trip to visit colleges with her daughter gave Christie Wall an idea that several years later she hopes will benefit her and her hometown.
For fun, Wall and her daughter tried out an escape room — an interactive adventure game that requires participants to solve a themed puzzle or challenge in order to physically exit a room.
“We weren’t even out of there, and I had the wheels turning,” Wall recalls. “This is creative, it’s fun and I love this!”
While researching the concept, Walls learned that ax-throwing entertainment spaces sometimes accompany escape room ventures. If she found a large enough space, she could have two businesses in one.
Fast-forward to August 2019 and Wall opened Grizzly’s Hatchet House and River City Escapes in downtown Danville’s River District. Housed in a former tobacco warehouse complete with wooden columns, it’s one of numerous businesses transforming Danville’s downtown, bringing life to vacant, historic textile and tobacco buildings that are remnants of the southern city’s past.
“People are spending more and more time downtown,” says Wall, a native of Danville who remembers downtown as a cluster of empty warehouses when she was a child. Now, she says, “when [people] go out on a Friday or Saturday night, they can spend their entire evening downtown. That’s what makes it such a great spot.”
Though manufacturing remains one of the top industries in Danville and Pittsylvania County, entrepreneurs like Wall are poised to draw on a growing tourism industry that’s expected to accelerate once a casino comes to the region.
Las Vegas-based Caesars Entertainment is investing $400 million to open a mega resort casino with live entertainment, conference space, multiple restaurants and bars and a spa. Projected to open by 2023, it will be located in a former Dan River Mills industrial complex in the city’s Schoolfield area.
The casino is expected to generate at least $190 million in direct revenue and $51 million in tax revenue annually by 2025, according to Virginia’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission.
Caesars has said the project will bring 1,300 jobs to the area.
If all goes as planned, it will be a win for Danville’s tourism industry, says Corrie Bobe, director of economic development for the city. Caesars projects that its resort will generate as many as 2 million visits each year, mostly from tourists coming from neighboring North Carolina and other states.
Because of this potential, Danville city government plans to create a tourism manager position to help maximize expenditures and visitor activity, Bobe says.
“My hope is the casino can really serve as a catalyst for a substantive tourism platform in Danville [and] Pittsylvania County,” says Alexis Ehrhardt, president and CEO of the Danville Pittsylvania County Chamber of Commerce.
This kind of diversity is important for Danville, she says.
“There’s a real interest here in not putting all of the proverbial eggs in one basket,” Ehrhardt says. “We want to attract employers, but I think diversity among our businesses and in our sectors seems to be the goal at this point.”
Businesses throughout the area stand to benefit as well from increased sales and traffic from the casino. This includes Danville’s River District, which has been on a redevelopment path since 2010 when city leaders traveled to Greenville, South Carolina, to study its downtown as a model for growth.
In December 2020, the River District’s first boutique hotel, the Bee, opened inside the former home of the Danville Register & Bee newspaper, founded in 1899 on Patton Street.
Also, there are at least 693 condos and apartments located throughout the River District, mostly in renovated warehouses, says Kelvin Perry, project manager for the city of Danville.
That doesn’t include another 88 apartments that will open later this year in a 68,000-square-foot building being redeveloped at 618 Craghead St. by Garrett Shifflett and Ross Fickenscher of Richmond-based Aoss Ventures. Also, a project by local developer Rick Barker will bring nine Airbnb units to the 500 block of Craghead Street, with one reserved as an artist-in-residence space in collaboration with the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History.
The current residential spaces in the district are about 98% occupied, Perry says. The approximately 2,298 downtown residents are a diverse group, from young professionals to senior citizens.
The growth of a city’s downtown boosts the economy of a community, he says. It’s also an important incentive for new businesses that are looking to expand to the area, Bobe says.
“Once they locate here, they want to ensure that their leadership, as well as employees, will be happy living here. That’s where quality of life comes into play,” she says.
The city has invested more than
$30 million to improve the River District’s streetscapes and infrastructure, including broadband access. In turn, $175 million in private investments have been made in the district.
“That’s a great return on investment,” Perry says.
An annual Dream Launch competition for entrepreneurs has served as a catalyst for some of Danville’s downtown business growth in the past few years. Through the competition, entrepreneurs participate in a business boot camp, and pitch contest winners receive money from the city to help start businesses in the River District.
Three years ago, in the Dream Launch’s first year, Wall’s venture won out of more than 100 competitors. She received $35,000.
“The Dream Launch gave me the option to pull the trigger,” Wall says. “Getting the funding to do things like that is very hard. I said, ‘If I don’t do it now, I’ll never do it.’”
‘The secret sauce’
Though redevelopment in the River District is bringing new life to Danville’s downtown, the region relies on a strong manufacturing base to fuel its economy and job growth.
About 18% of its workforce is in manufacturing. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. is the largest employer, with about 2,500 workers.
The availability of a solid workforce trained in advanced manufacturing is key to the region’s success in attracting new companies.
“When I first started in this career, site consultants would want to know about the site,” says Matthew Rowe, director of economic development for Pittsylvania County. “Now when I get a call, the site consultant is asking, ‘How is your workforce and how is your site?’ If you don’t have the workforce that is able to make the product in an efficient way and is committed to manufacturing, you’ll fail.”
The area’s workforce largely is homegrown, and its development starts in local middle schools where students are exposed to advanced manufacturing while studying 3D modeling, virtual welding, 3D printing, robotics and more, Rowe says. Once in high school, students can continue to learn through more specific training programs offered by Danville Community College.
“Companies are going to locate as close to that talent pool as possible to avoid risk,” Rowe says. “It allows them to have access to that workforce easier. That is the secret sauce.”
In fact, through a leadership program and a training academy, Danville Community College is helping to train new employees for Morgan Olson, a Michigan-based manufacturer of step vans. Last year, the company opened a manufacturing facility in the former Ikea plant in Ringgold, just outside city limits in Pittsylvania. It chose Ringgold, in part, because of the area’s workforce and training opportunities.
“There’s obviously enough talent in the region to indicate that workers would be inclined to pursue jobs at production sites such as these,” says Michael Lewis, director of human resources at the Ringgold facility.
As part of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership’s Virginia Talent Accelerator Program, Morgan Olson will receive help with training the 700-plus employees the manufacturer expects to hire by the end of 2021. As of late February, the company had hired 407 employees for jobs ranging from paint technicians and material handlers to assemblers and machine operators. Their pay ranges from $15 to $20 an hour, Lewis says.
Additionally, Pittsylvania County is working hard to land the first corporate tenant at the Southern Virginia Megasite at Berry Hill, a 3,528-acre industrial park. Jointly owned by Danville and Pittsylvania County, it’s billed as the largest industrial park in Virginia.
Generally, prospective companies considering the site have as many as 2,500 employees and could make more than $1 billion in economic development investment, Rowe says.
The coronavirus pandemic slowed site visits in 2020, and the county had video meetings with some companies. But it’s not easy to land a real deal on a virtual platform, Rowe says.
“If you are a CEO, you want to walk and see and taste and smell that community,” he says.
Last year, Dominion Energy Inc. canceled its plans to build a $200 million power plant at the megasite.
In Hurt’s Southern Virginia Multimodal Park, Staunton River Plastics, a packaging manufacturer, has delayed construction of its $34 million facility by about six months due to the pandemic. Construction was rescheduled to begin in March, Rowe says.
“The pandemic hasn’t changed the business demand at all,” he says. “We have stayed just as busy as ever. It has impacted the efficiency of conducting business.” ν