Williamsburg, York, James City combine forces
“Cooperation” is a word Jim Noel uses a lot these days when speaking about the Greater Williamsburg region, which encompasses the city of Williamsburg and York and James City counties.
As York County’s economic development director, Noel has watched as one of the most historically significant areas of the nation has worked to revive and diversify its economy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and its devastating effects on tourism.
In 2020, overnight visitation to Virginia declined by 33%, shrinking from 44 million visitors in 2019 to 29.3 million visitors, according to the Virginia Tourism Corp.
The Williamsburg region performed even worse.
“Williamsburg is still one of the lowest occupancy markets in the state,” says Eric Terry, president of the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging & Travel Association (VRLTA). The major reasons, Terry says, are fewer visitors and shorter stays at Colonial Williamsburg.
“I think it’s a little more challenging to sell historic tourism these days,” he notes. “Vacations have now become four-day weekends, as opposed to weeklong.” Also, new hotels and resorts — which Williamsburg lacks, compared with nearby Virginia Beach, for instance — often tempt vacationers.
In October 2020, Williamsburg’s occupancy rate was 31.2%, the lowest of the 13 Virginia markets surveyed, according to VRLTA data. It rose to 52.5% by October 2021, but was still ranked lowest among markets surveyed and was below the state average of 64%.
Also, notes Old Dominion University’s 2021 State of the Region report, June 2021 hotel revenue in Williamsburg was at $17.7 million, a 514% increase from the previous year but 6% below June 2019. Some of this is due to lower per-room prices that sank to an average of $88 per night in July 2020. Prices rose to $163 in July 2021, with 67% occupancy, says Ron Kirkland, executive director of the Williamsburg Hotel and Motel Association.
But group and business travel are still lagging, Kirkland says, because many people aren’t yet ready to convene in large groups. Barring any further setbacks, he thinks it will be another year to 18 months before tourism and occupancy rates fully recover.
Colonial Williamsburg, historically one of the bellwethers of the Williamsburg region’s tourism industry, has seen a precipitous drop in ticket sales since a high point of 1.2 million tickets in 1988. By 2018, tickets sales plummeted to 550,171, the lowest point since the 1960s. And in 2020, due to the pandemic, the living history attraction was closed from mid-March to mid-June, reopening under state capacity limits for nearly a year.
“I’m happy to report that visitation to Colonial Williamsburg’s historic area and art museums has been strong through the summer and is gradually returning to pre-COVID-19 visitation levels,” notes Ellen Peltz, public relations manager for The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, although she declined to provide current numbers on visits, financial data and employment.
From COVID to cooperation
Regional cooperation is seen as part of the path toward recovery and diversification in the region.
The city of Williamsburg and York and James City counties have shared interests that encourage cooperation, says Noel with York County: “We work together a lot, and it makes sense. Our economies are intertwined and while we have a mixed economy, the hospitality industry is important to all three of us.”
Food and drink and good times never seem to lose appeal, and Williamsburg-area localities are excited about the Edge District, a developing hospitality- and entertainment-driven area on the borders of the three localities, sited along Second Street, Merrimac Trail, Capitol Landing Road and the Virginia Route 143 corridor.
The district has drawn support from local governments and in short order has become an example of increasing regional cooperation in the face of economic adversity.
Robby Willey, who co-founded The Virginia Beer Co. brewery in 2016 on Second Street, is the Williamsburg Economic Development Authority liaison for the district. “The municipalities put their money where their mouth was,” he says, including setting up a website promoting the district to the public. Also, businesses in the area are planning to form an association to work on securing signage and infrastructure to attract more people to the district, he says.
Noel began promoting the Edge District in 2019 when he started thinking about ways to spur economic development on a regional level.
“It occurred to me that this is a real cool corridor,” says Noel, who took the idea to his local economic development counterparts, who also were enthusiastic about the concept. So were owners of restaurant and beverage businesses, which were hit harder than other sectors during the height of the pandemic and have encountered hiring difficulties during the widespread labor shortage.
“Both from an EDA and business perspective, we couldn’t do what we do without our visitors,” Willey says, noting that the localities’ marketing encourages residents and tourists to “step out of their comfort zone,” and try out new businesses.
Although the three local economic development authorities each donated $2,000 to create a starter fund for the Edge District, the big push came after the Environmental Protection Agency announced in June 2019 that it was awarding the Greater Williamsburg Partnership a $600,000 brownfields grant, which would be used to conduct environmental assessments in the Edge District, Grove, Tabb Lakes and Lightfoot, and make properties suitable for redevelopment.
“Redevelopment and revitalization” is the primary goal of the brownfields grants, says Tom Laughlin, a senior associate with Draper Aden Associates, the Blacksburg-based engineering, surveying and environmental services firm that was hired to manage the brownfields grant. The firm also hired Consociate Media of Gloucester to brand and market the Edge District.
Part of the grant funds an assessment process that identifies any potential hazards such as lead paint, asbestos or underground tanks so that potential buyers or developers of a distressed property know what they might face.
The grant also provides for conceptual designs and renderings of what a distressed property could look like after rehabilitation.
About a dozen projects have been examined so far, but Laughlin says he isn’t able to discuss them yet. Nevertheless, he adds, “projects are in motion, and we expect tangible evidence in a year or two.”
“We are excited to see this budding foodie/shopping destination get the attention that it deserves,” Yuri Adams, Williamsburg’s acting economic development director, says of the district.
“Chef-driven restaurants and destination boutique shopping are the central focus of the Edge District, and we wanted to create a way to market and celebrate all that these businesses offer our community — not just through the products they offer, but also through the community development and philanthropic efforts they provide our Greater Williamsburg region,” Adams says.
Growth through collaboration
Industrial development is another area where the Greater Williamsburg localities are finding opportunities for collaboration.
In 2018, the three principal Williamsburg-area localities, as well as seven other localities, including the cities of Chesapeake, Franklin, Hampton, Newport News and Poquoson, formed the Eastern Virginia Regional Industrial Facility Authority (EVRIFA).
“What a RIFA does is to allow localities to invest in an economic project and share the revenue,” Noel says, “but not everyone has to participate.” In 2020, the Eastern Virginia RIFA approved the $1.35 million acquisition of a 432-acre one-time naval fuel depot in York County, property formerly owned by the state.
The site, which is accessible to Interstate 64, will be occupied by a solar farm and an industrial park. CI Renewables of New Jersey, formerly known as KDC Solar, was slated to pay $1.35 million to EVRIFA for the site in a deal that was expected to close in mid-December 2021. In addition to building the 20-megawatt solar farm, CI Renewables will lease about 180 acres of the property for the construction of Kings Creek Commerce Center, a light industrial park.
Another potential cooperative effort between the localities is a proposed indoor sports complex. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has offered its underused, 100-acre regional visitors center property as the site for the project.
Williamsburg city government has been discussing the idea of an indoor sports complex since 2014 and more recently broached the idea of forming a Historic Triangle Recreational Authority with James City and York counties that would oversee the complex. In November, the counties officially joined the authority.
The localities also have cooperated on other objectives, but the proposed sports tourism complex would represent the largest intergovernmental project ever undertaken by the three governments.
Utah-based Victus Advisors, a consultant hired by the city, recommended in March 2021 that the facility be at least 150,000 square feet, which would accommodate 12 basketball courts that would convert into 24 volleyball courts. The project’s cost and timeline for construction and opening are still under study, according to a Williamsburg official.
Terry says sports tourism could be a big help to diversify and boost Williamsburg’s hospitality sector, especially during off-seasons, as it has in other localities.
“As we’ve seen the facilities built around Hampton and Virginia Beach, it’s been a real shot in the arm for them,” Terry says.
In October 2020, for example, Virginia Beach opened the $68 million Virginia Beach Sports Center, a 285,000-square-foot facility near the Oceanfront with seating for 5,000 spectators.
Rick Overy, chair of the Williamsburg Economic Development Authority, emphasizes the need for diversity in the economy and reiterates the growing importance of sports tourism.
“To host large athletic tournaments — that’s something [we’re] hoping to build on and not just rely on the historic tourism, which has been the stalwart of what we’ve had for 50 years,” he says. “When everybody thinks of Williamsburg, they think of historic tourism, so we’re trying to diversify that.”
Formed in 2016, the Greater Williamsburg Partnership is a yet another example of regional cooperation to attract business and industry to Williamsburg and York and James City counties.
James City County Economic Development Director Christopher Johnson says the partnership celebrates no matter what regional locality is selected for a new business or expansion. “It benefits us all.”
With the ongoing expansion of Interstate 64, the buildup of the Port of Virginia and the $3.8 billion Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel expansion, Johnson says cooperation will benefit the entire region.
“Development is a long game,” says Johnson, “not just a quick win.”
Overy also sees a higher degree of cooperation between Colonial Williamsburg, the city of Williamsburg and William & Mary.
Williamsburg City Council has asked the EDA to help make Williamsburg a Virginia Main Street community and to establish a downtown business association.
“We are seeking to unify not just businesses but also interested individuals, nonprofits — anyone who cares about our downtown,” Overy says.
“There aren’t that many areas that have a national college [and] a national museum in a historic city and they all try to work together, and that’s one of the strengths that Williamsburg has that we’re all trying to build on,” he adds. “That cooperation is now as good as it’s ever been in my 40 years in Williamsburg, and that bodes well for the future.”
Virginia Business Deputy Editor Kate Andrews contributed to this story.