Hill City on the rise
Lynchburg builds on a long-standing foundation of regional cooperation
It’s tempting to think of Lynchburg as the city attached to Liberty University.
With more than 15,000 students on campus and more than 85,000 online, Liberty is the largest university in Virginia and the fastest-growing in the country, according to Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance CEO Megan A. Lucas.
“Liberty is obviously an economic engine unto itself,” says Marjette G. Upshur, director of the Lynchburg Office of Economic Development and Tourism. “They are continuously building over there.”
Indeed, a 2015 study estimated Liberty pumps about $1 billion into the Lynchburg-area economy annually. But Lynchburg was around for 185 years before Liberty was founded in 1971, so there’s more to the Hill City than one big school. In fact, Lynchburg is home to four other colleges, and another 15 colleges are within 50 miles of the city.
In addition to education, health care is another primary driver of the region’s economy. Centra Health, a Lynchburg-based nonprofit health system with four hospitals and a network of primary-care physicians and specialists, has 6,400 employees.
The biggest economic news in 2017, however, was the announcement that Cincinnati-based Convergys Corp., the largest customer-service provider in the country, plans to establish a call center in Lynchburg, creating more than 600 jobs over three years. The year before, Pacific Life Insurance Co. announced it was creating a Lynchburg call center creating 300 jobs over three years.
“That’s a really big deal,” Upshur says of those announcements. “We are all targeting high-quality, high-paid jobs. Sometimes a customer-service center is not the highest paid jobs, but these are good solid jobs. And both of these companies offer benefits as well.”
The region’s employers are diverse, ranging from BWX Technologies and AREVA, which serve the nuclear power industry, to the Old Virginia Candle Co., which makes candles.
The Lynchburg area had an unemployment rate of 4 percent in October, higher than the state’s overall rate of 3.6 percent.
The region’s poverty rate (13.5 percent) also is slightly higher than the state’s (11 percent), but the city’s rate is 23.1 percent. That number is similar to poverty levels seen in other Virginia cities, including Richmond (24.4 percent) and Norfolk (21.5 percent).
Like some other urban school systems, Lynchburg’s schools also face challenges. Only seven of its 16 public schools are currently fully accredited by the state.
Anna Bentson, the assistant director of the Lynchburg Office of Economic Development and Tourism, says local government takes poverty and school accreditation seriously.
“They have rolled up their sleeves and whole-heartedly engaged in real solutions for the problem,” says Lucas, the Business Alliance CEO.
Training for workers
Meanwhile, the city’s economic development organization is helping people prepare for work. “We have a robust workforce training program,” Bentson says, “and certainly equipping and training citizens of Lynchburg to participate in the economy is a key focus of ours.”
Lynchburg was the first Virginia city, and the smallest metro area in the country, to become part of the TechHire program. An Obama administration program that Bentson and Upshur say is continuing in 2018, TechHire provides training opportunities for workers lacking skills. Fifteen area businesses have partnered with the Lynchburg Office of Economic Development and Tourism to provide training and apprenticeships to prepare people for middle- and high-skill jobs.
While TechHire prepares people for work, a national program called Co.Starters prepares people to build their own companies. Begun in Chattanooga, Tenn., in 2013, Co.Starters is a nine-week program that helps would-be entrepreneurs develop business plans. Its website promises participants they will “leave the program with a deeper understanding of how to create a sustainable business, articulate your model and repeat the process with your next great idea.”
Bentson says the program has had 50 graduates since it began in Lynchburg in 2015. Not all of those graduates have started businesses, she says, but that’s part of the point. Not every aspiring entrepreneur is ready to create a startup. Not every idea is ready for implementation after nine weeks. Not every would-be business owner wants to invest the time and capital required.
Co.Starters gives people a chance to learn, prepare or change their minds. The program will continue in 2018, Bentson says, with more emphasis on supporting graduates as they put their plans into action. The deadline to apply for the next cohort is Jan. 31.
While a well-prepared workforce and a steady flow of new ideas and creative businesses are vital, those businesses need a place to flourish and workers need a place to live and play. Lynchburg has worked hard at making its downtown that place. A downtown revitalization plan adopted in 2001 envisioned a city that was more walkable, had more public areas, took advantage of the James River and turned a geographic feature that could be a nuisance —Lynchburg, like Rome, was built on seven hills — into an asset.
During the past decade, about 1,000 residential lofts have been built downtown, with more planned for this year. The 2015 completion of the Bluff Walk — a series of walkways, stairs and terraces that shows off the city’s historic buildings and river views — spurred retail and restaurant development. Festivals and public art projects such as Hill City Keys — placing painted and tuned pianos outside downtown businesses — draw people to the heart of the city.
“We talk about talent retention. We talk about college students. We talk about recruiting and attracting businesses,” Bentson says, “but downtown and quality of life and all those amenities are absolutely critical to having people live and work in the city.”
More of those amenities are on the way. The Virginian Lynchburg is scheduled to open in April, joining Hilton’s Curio Collection of what the company calls “distinctive” four-and five star hotels. There are 51 hotels in the group now, including the Hotel Roanoke and Conference Center, from Buenos Aires to Lagos to Qatar. Paris has two hotels in the group.
Lynchburg’s contribution was built in 1913, with additions in 1927 and 1929. It’s served as a hotel, as low-income housing and as Liberty University’s first dorm. It’s scheduled to re-open with its marble stairs, 30-foot ceilings and decorative skylights restored and 115 rooms and suites ready for guests.
The Academy of Music Theater also is scheduled to reopen before the end of 2018. Built in 1905 and rebuilt in 1912 after a fire, the 700-seat theater has been closed since 1958. W.C. Handy, Will Rogers and Josephine Baker were among those who performed in what’s now the last of what were nine theaters in downtown Lynchburg.
The Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance renovated a building at the edge of downtown and moved in last October. “We believe the region’s premier business and industry organization needs to be in the urban hub,” says Lucas of the Business Alliance.
That sort of cooperative spirit is at the heart of the region’s economic development efforts.
“The Lynchburg region has a 30-year history of working collaboratively across municipal boundary lines,” Lucas says. “We historically have really been the leader in the state for that kind of cooperation.”
She ticks off a list of cooperative ventures in addition to her own organization, which was formed by the merger of two regional business organizations two years ago. There’s a regional marketing plan, she says, a regional site analysis, a regional workforce board, a regional radio authority, even a regional landfill.
“The Lynchburg region continues to focus on generating awareness and discussions and jobs and capital investment in the area,” Lucas says. “So our motto is thinking regionally, impacting globally.” The region’s emphasis, she says, is “getting out into the world and telling our story.”