Ready for a close-up
Region’s changing culture and economy get international exposure
Ted Ukrop sips a cup of coffee in the vaulted lobby of his design-driven Quirk Hotel on West Broad Street in Richmond where the ceiling towers 20 feet above his head.
“I always felt that Richmond needed a cool hotel. I always knew somebody was going to do it, and I would regret it if it wasn’t me,” says Ukrop, a scion of the Ukrop family that for decades operated the most successful group of grocery stores in the region.
Housed in a century-old building that once was a luxury dry-goods store, the hotel has 74 guest rooms, with art in all of them. Half of the rooms are painted an eye-popping color — a Benjamin Moore “Love and Happiness” pink. Each hotel floor features a papier-mâché portrait of an animal or a person.
Ukrop and his wife, Katie, co-own the hotel with a group of investors. The couple also own an art gallery next door.
Ukrop says his family and other investors spent more than $20 million in transforming the building into a hotel, including the addition of a seventh-floor to accommodate four terrace suites and a two-tier rooftop bar.
Condé Nast Traveler has named Quirk one of the best new hotels in the world, with one of the best rooftop bars in the U.S.
Quirk made its debut a year ago, just in time for the UCI Road World Championships in Richmond. The international cycling races, which had not been held in the U.S. for nearly 20 years, proved to be something of a coming-out party for the changing culture and economy for a region once known as a staid cigarette manufacturing center.
A study estimated the 10-day event, which drew cycling fans from around the world, had an economic impact of $161 million in the region. More important, however, was the exposure the area received from international television coverage.
“Almost 70 percent of our prospects are currently international companies looking at Richmond. Only 30 percent are domestic,” says Barry Matherly, president and CEO of the Greater Richmond Partnership, an economic development organization that markets Richmond and Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico counties. “International sporting events are better for us to market this region with than the NFL, NBA and baseball combined, as far as the viewership.”
Edwin Gaskin, economic development director for Hanover County, concurs. “When we are courting international companies, our chief challenge is just being known … To have that TV coverage, to have citizens, consumers, business owners, managers, employees say, ‘Oh, Richmond, that’s where that cycling event was.’ That’s priceless. You can’t put a value on that.”
The region’s international close-up came at an opportune time. In several areas, the region has been on a roll.
Foreign investment announced in the Richmond area in recent years has included: Mavalério, a Brazilian candy and confectionary product company, which has established its first U.S. production operation in Hanover; Polykon
Manufacturing LLC, a French joint venture that will make cosmetic and pharmaceutical ingredients in Henrico; and the biggest of all, Tranlin, a Chinese company subsidiary that plans to build a $2 billion paper plant in Chesterfield County.
“We’ll see dirt fly in the spring of ’17 when the weather gets right,” says Garrett Hart, Chesterfield’s economic development director.
Growth in jobs, retail sales
The Richmond metro area saw net growth of 26,121 jobs last year, an increase of 4.1 percent compared with 2.7 percent in Virginia and 2 percent nationwide.
Chesterfield’s employment, for example, last year grew 6 percent to more 140,000 jobs, ranking it fourth in the nation in employment growth among large counties. The county expects to add another 76 jobs soon. Niagara Bottling plans to invest $95 million to establish a manufacturing and bottling facility at the Meadowville Technology Park.
Retail development also continues, especially in Henrico. Wegmans, an upscale grocer, recently opened its first stores south of Fredericksburg in Midlothian and Short Pump. “Henrico is basically the number one locality in the state in terms of sales per capita,” says Gary McLaren, executive director of the county’s economic development authority. “We’re number two in terms of total retail sales behind Fairfax [County], which has over a million people.”
The Richmond area also now has eight Fortune 500 companies, up from six last year. Goochland County-based food service company Performance Food Group and Henrico-based specialty insurance company Markel Corp. joined Altria Group (Henrico), Dominion Resources (Richmond), CarMax (Goochland), Genworth (Henrico), Owens & Minor (Hanover) and WestRock (formerly MeadWestvaco, Richmond).
Back from the dead
Ted Ukrop has been a witness to the revival of downtown Richmond, now one of the fastest-growing areas in the region.
In the 1990s, his family bought eight buildings around the Quirk site, creating loft apartments in some of them while hoping for a revival throughout the Broad Street corridor.
At the time, vacant and deteriorating buildings in the area were like tombstones. Downtown’s decline was driven in part by waves of suburban flight and the closing of the city’s two landmark department stores, Miller & Rhoads (in 1990) and Thalhimers (in 1992).
From 1970 to 2000, the city lost more than a quarter of its population, shrinking from nearly 250,000 to fewer than 200,000, according to the U.S. Census. Today, the population has rebounded to an estimated 220,000.
In 2000, there were only 6,000 people living downtown. By 2010, there were 15,000. Now, there are more than 20,000.
In 2014, a study by VCU and Venture Richmond, a promotion and marketing group, found that various parts of downtown experienced dramatic growth in recent years, fueled in part by state and federal tax credits as well as the city’s tax abatement program for rehabilitated properties.
Lucy Meade, Venture Richmond’s director of marketing and development, estimates that overall investment during the past 10 years totaled about $4.5 billion.
Recent downtown development, completed last year or underway this year, has amounted for more than $1.04 billion, the organization says. That includes 2,149 loft apartments, 369 hotel rooms as well as more than 2.1 million square feet of commercial and arts and education, and medical space.
One reason for downtown’s comeback is a renewed interest in urban living, especially among millennials, taking place nationwide. Forbes magazine last year ranked Richmond as the fastest-growing rental market for millennials in the country. Zillow, a Seattle-based real estate and rental research firm, recently reported that more millennials live alone in Richmond than in any other U.S. metro area, in part because they have the income to support themselves.
Quirk is not the only talked-about property on Broad Street. East of the hotel, at North Third and East Broad, is one of Richmond’s most dramatic Art Deco landmarks, the 87-year-old former Central National Bank building. Now known as the Deco at CNB Apartments, the 23-story tower has begun renting 200 apartments after a $36 million, multiyear renovation project.
In the other direction, at the corner of West Broad and Belvidere streets, construction is underway at the Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University. The $37 million building at one of downtown’s main gateways is expected to become a cultural linchpin when completed next year.
The city also is getting its share of new skyscrapers. The $124 million, Gateway Plaza, an 18-story tower in the financial district, was completed last year. Its main tenant is the law firm McGuireWoods LLP.
A few blocks away, a $93 million, 21-story office and apartment building is under construction. SunTrust Banks Inc. will move its Richmond division main office into the high rise, at 10th and East Byrd streets, while much of the remaining space will be used for 187 luxury apartments.
Dominion Resources has begun the demolition of an existing office building, Richmond Plaza, to make way for a 20-story office tower at 111 S. Sixth St., that will replace that existing building.
Existing buildings also are seeing new use. Chester-based Shamin Hotels spent more than $40 million converting a downtown office building into two hotels with a rooftop restaurant and bar.
Used-car retailer CarMax has turned a former music venue on the city’s Canal Walk into a technology and innovation center for 80 to 120 employees.
Cycling and lunching
Jane Ferrara, chief operating officer with Richmond’s Department of Economic & Community Development, says the UCI championships and the newly completed Capital Trail between Richmond and Williamsburg, have put the focus on cycling in the city.
“Millennials are attracted to cities with things like bike lanes and bike trails, different ways of getting to work,” Ferrara says.
People from other generations also are discovering attractions in the city. At Quirk, Ukrop says some of his best lunch customers are “older ladies” who remember a time when a meal at a downtown department store was an elegant treat.
Quirk’s Maple & Pine restaurant, however, will never be mistaken for the Miller & Rhoads Tea Room.
“The second week we were open we had a really prominent Richmond family having dinner and next to them were these four girls, their arms all tattooed up,” Ukrop says. “That’s what we wanted to have — this diverse, eclectic mix — and I think we’re doing pretty well at this.”