2017-10-11 / Featured / Front Page

Meadowville: Cautionary tale or mega-success?


JAMES HASKINS JAMES HASKINS When online retail giant Amazon opened a 1 million-square-foot fulfillment center at Meadowville Technology Park in 2012, county and state officials hailed it as an economic coup that would create thousands of jobs and provide Chesterfield with a much-needed infusion of commercial tax revenue.

Data suggests the project has delivered on both promises. The Amazon facility employs more than 1,500 people year-round and twice that during the holiday shopping season. It is easily Meadowville’s largest tenant and the biggest reason the 1,260-acre property’s annual county tax assessment has jumped from $8.9 million to $268.9 million.

Garrett Hart, the county’s economic development director, called Meadowville a “20-year success story” – a reference to the technology park’s long journey to economic relevance. The project’s planning, and many rezoning cases, began in earnest in the mid-1990s.

Online retailer Amazon opened a massive $85 million fulfillment center in Meadowville Technology Park in 2012, bringing jobs and commercial tax revenue to Chesterfield. 
JAMES HASKINS Online retailer Amazon opened a massive $85 million fulfillment center in Meadowville Technology Park in 2012, bringing jobs and commercial tax revenue to Chesterfield. JAMES HASKINS But as county leaders work to cull public support for a planned industrial megasite in Chester, this one south of state Route 10 and encompassing 1,675 acres, some citizens are holding up Meadowville as exhibit A in the case against it.

“Meadowville was never intended to be a bunch of warehouses,” said Freddy Boisseau, who lives near Meadowville in a neighborhood off Ruffin Mill Road. “It was supposed to be computers, biotech, research and development. But the county couldn’t get what they wanted there, so they started searching for what they could get.”

Indeed, the county cobbled together land to create Meadowville, and spent millions on infrastructure, in the wake of Motorola Inc.’s long-ago plans to build a semiconductor facility in Goochland County. Motorola never materialized, but Meadowville did. And instead of highly paid technical positions, what Amazon brought to Meadowville was thousands of unskilled jobs that pay between $11 and $13 per hour. That’s especially relevant now that county and state leaders are touting the job-creating potential of the proposed south Chester megasite.

By acquiring the residential property and preparing it with necessary utility infrastructure, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe said, the county could attract a large-scale industrial manufacturer capable of making a $1 billion investment and creating 5,000 jobs.

With Meadowville still fresh in their minds, many Chester residents doubt the county’s ability to make good on the governor’s lofty words. They expressed their skepticism during community meetings last week at Carver Middle and Thomas Dale High schools.

“They’re asking us to accept a major highway, rail and an industrial site in our neighborhood without anything more than the possibility of getting a company that will bring thousands of good jobs,” said Mike Uzel, leader of a citizen group, Bermuda Advocates for Responsible Development, that opposes the megasite. “This boils down to, do you believe them or not?”

Uzel described Meadowville as “an example of not getting what you advertised.”

“What happened there was not good,” he added. “There is certainly fear that it could happen again, despite what [county leaders] are saying.”  

The iconic 1989 baseball film “Field of Dreams,” starring Kevin Costner, provided a line that is still frequently borrowed by local economic development officials across the country: “If you build it, they will come.”

What happens when you build it and nobody shows up?

The county’s initial vision for Meadowville revolved around chips. Not potato chips or tortilla chips, but computer chips known as semiconductors.

In the mid-1990s, semiconductor manufacturers Motorola and Siemens announced their intentions to build large fabrication plants in Goochland and eastern Henrico counties, respectively. Suddenly, the region was swept up in a frenzied dream of computer chips, new jobs and dollar signs.

Amid chatter that a third semiconductor manufacturer planned to build a plant in the Richmond area, Chesterfield officials moved quickly to avoid being left behind. The Board of Supervisors zoned more than 1,200 acres of property near Interstate 295 for creation of a technology park. The EDA spent $12.9 million to acquire the land and another $73.4 million on infrastructure.

But just as quickly as it began, the computer chip craze fizzled. Chesterfield’s fabrication plant never became anything more than a rumor. Motorola abandoned its plans to locate in Goochland.

Quimonda, a Siemens spinoff, did build a plant in eastern Henrico, but it closed when the company went bankrupt in 2008, eliminating about 1,200 jobs.

In the midst of a global recession, the Chesterfield EDA found itself sitting on a sprawling, mostly vacant piece of property, millions of dollars in debt. High-tech manufacturing largely had been outsourced to capitalize on cheaper overseas labor. Unemployment skyrocketed as American companies laid off employees by the thousands.

When Amazon expressed interest in coming to Chesterfield, with the promise of an $85 million investment and more than 1,000 new jobs, county leaders jumped at the opportunity. It wasn’t exactly what they had envisioned for Meadowville. But at that point, really, what choice did they have?

“The county did what they had to do,” acknowledged local attorney John Cogbill, a member of the EDA’s board of directors, during one of the community meetings last week.

Amazon put Meadowville on the map and other companies followed. Illinois based Medline Industries, a medical supply company, built a 400,000-squarefoot distribution center at the park in 2014. Meadowville is now home to large data centers owned by Capital One and Northrop Grumman. The nation’s largest bottled-water supplier, Niagara Bottling, opened a new 450,000-square-foot plant adjacent to the Amazon fulfillment center earlier this year.

“Meadowville has accomplished our two base goals by attracting over $570 million in private investment and producing a 3,021 percent increase in the real estate assessment,” Hart noted via email. “Additionally, the county has collected $24.45 million for land sold to date and we have 726 acres yet to be developed.”

If Chesterfield wants an example of what a megasite can become, it needs only to look next door. Facebook announced last week plans to build a $1 billion data center at Henrico County’s White Oak Technology Park.

The broader lesson, though, is that megasites don’t always work out as intended. Landing a big and enduring corporate score can take years. In the words of Cogbill, “Just because a local government puts it on a map and calls it a megasite, that doesn’t necessarily make it so.”

The concept of megasites has been around for decades. It involves a public entity buying 1,000 acres or more of land, putting in infrastructure such as water, sewer lines and roads and then marketing the site around the globe.

“You’ve got to have sites zoned and ready to go to be competitive,” explained Greg Wingfield, former head of the Greater Richmond Partnership.

That was the idea at White Oak, which once was a dummy airfield intended to confuse would-be German bombers in World War II. The eastern Henrico tract was developed into a megasite in 1996 in anticipation of the Siemens semiconductor plant. But Henrico County’s initial investment didn’t truly pay off until Facebook came along 21 years later.

When he announced Chesterfield’s plan to develop its own megasite in August, McAuliffe claimed that the commonwealth has been unable to capitalize on several business opportunities because localities were unwilling to make the up-front investment to acquire large parcels and put in the necessary infrastructure.

“In Virginia, we always say, ‘Let’s wait until the business comes, then we’ll build it.’ Well, that’s not how it works,” he said. “When an auto manufacturer or aerospace company is about to make a decision, they move very quickly. If the site is not ready, you’re not going to get it.

“We have lost out on a lot of those major projects. We were not even in the game on many of them. This site gives Virginia something unique and allows us to compete for projects on a level we haven’t had before,” he added.

Asked which companies had been driven away, neither McAuliffe’s office nor the Virginia Economic Development Partnership would say.

For success stories in other states, economic development officials point to the Tennessee Valley Authority, which supplies electricity to several states in the mid- South. One TVA megasite that scored was the 6,000-acre Enterprise South Industrial Park built on a former ammunition factory near Chattanooga, Tennessee.

The property was certified as an official megasite in 2004. Within a few years, Volkswagen Group of America made plans for a car assembly plant that opened on more than 1,000 acres in 2011. The $1.7 billion facility employs 3,500 and has the capacity to produce upward of 250,000 vehicles a year.

The Volkswagen case is an example of how preparing megasites and having them officially certified works, said Mark M. Sweeney, senior principal at McCallum Sweeney Consulting in Greenville, South Carolina. His firm provides certification for megasites that involves months of review to make sure the projects are viable and have appropriate infrastructure.

“We assess projects for their readiness and it vastly reduces uncertainty,” he said.

Sweeney’s firm reviews megasites to determine how available, developable and sustainable they are. Assessments can take nine to 12 months, providing companies with a clear idea of what’s available. Doing so reduces the time it takes to get new factories constructed. Sweeney worked on the Volkswagen project and on another in Mississippi where Toyota built an assembly plant.

Virginia has at least seven megasites, including White Oak and Meadowville in the Richmond area. The rest span the state from the Shenandoah Valley to southern Virginia. Most have not been successful in attracting industry. Some have been slow to get started.

Eight years ago, Greensville County, Virginia, prepared a 1,600-acre megasite near Emporia and Interstate 95 and added rail lines. It has yet to land a company, but three prospects are interested, according to Natalie B. Slate, director of economic development for Greensville County.

The 3,500-acre Berry Hill megasite in Pittsylvania County has had better luck. Atlanta-based Southern Power announced it would build a natural gas-fired generating station on the site with a minimum investment of $250 million, said Matthew Rowe, economic development director for Pittsylvania County.

One question officials ponder is whether it is enough to land what Rowe called a “white elephant,” or if they should focus on attracting smaller, complementary manufacturing facilities. “The Holy Grail is not a big manufacturing plant, but the firms involved in the supply chain,” Rowe added.

Tennessee’s Volkswagen plant, for example, provides work for thousands more than its direct workforce. The Chesterfield megasite conceivably could attract smaller firms that make jet engine blades for the Rolls Royce manufacturing facility in nearby Prince George County, Rowe said.

County officials insist they have no intention of dividing the megasite into smaller parcels. If the Board of Supervisors rezones the 1,675-acre property from residential to industrial, Hart said the EDA plans to develop the middle 750 acres for one large-scale manufacturer and maintain the remainder as a buffer between the megasite and adjacent homes.

“The county is saying they’ll sit on the site until they get the deal they want,” Uzel said of the Chester megasite. “I think they’re trying to get it zoned. Then they can do whatever they want with it.” A

Acquiring the south Chester property and converting it into a megasite likely will cost upward of $100 million – including the construction of new roads linking the site to Interstate 95 and Route 10. Still, Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Dorothy Jaeckle thinks the project will have a far more beneficial impact on the county’s finances than if the land remains zoned for residential use and new homes are built there.

The proposed megasite once was envisioned as a massive mixed-use project known as Branner Station. Developer HHHunt obtained zoning in 2007 to build 2,449 single-family homes, 1,331 condos and townhouses, 908 apartments and 300 assisted-living units, as well as 470,000 square feet of commercial space.

The development was projected to increase the county’s population by more than 13,000, but the recession hit before the developer broke ground and the project ultimately was abandoned.

By developing the property as an industrial megasite, “we’re trading 5,000 houses for 5,000 jobs,” Hart said.

Chesterfield long has been a bedroom community for the Richmond region. As County Administrator Joe Casey noted last week, the county is a net exporter of labor; approximately 40,000 more people leave Chesterfield for work on a daily basis than either stay in the county or come from neighboring localities.

“With that comes the burdens of schools, roads and higher real estate taxes,” Casey said. “Whether it’s one job at a time, or in this case 5,000, we want to close that gap.”

Matoaca Supervisor Steve Elswick recently pointed out that over the next 10 years, the county’s high schools are projected to graduate about 50,000 students – a certain number of whom will not go to college.

“We have to provide jobs for people,” he said.

But, as was evident in the reactions from several speakers at the community meetings, not all jobs are created equal. One person criticized county leaders for touting the benefit of industrial jobs, claiming they are “selling people fool’s gold.”

“You all obviously haven’t worked one of these jobs,” he said. “You’re talking about how great they are, but they’re really not.”

Amazon was a frequent target in that regard. Several citizens at the community meetings questioned if the county is willing to create a megasite that negatively impacts many nearby property owners in order to create, in the words of one speaker, “a bunch of $12 and $13 an hour jobs.”

Others noted that manufacturing has become increasingly automated in recent years, and that even a large-scale industrial manufacturer might not need thousands of skilled workers.

“I’m looking for quality jobs, not just a number,” Casey said.

Cogbill assured citizens that the county is looking to attract a company whose average annual salary is $45,000 or higher. Chesterfield’s average annual salary is $44,300.

Despite such promises, Boisseau, the man who lives off Ruffin Mill Road near Meadowville, said the county has no track record for generating large numbers of high-paying jobs in the industrial sector.

“They’re playing developer with taxpayer dollars,” he added. “They don’t have any skin in the game. They’re using our money like it’s Monopoly money.” ¦

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