Seeing is simple. Talking is easy. Doing—now, that’s the hard part.
Route 3 is somewhat of an enigma in Orange County: a four-lane highway bookended by Culpeper to the west and Fredericksburg to the east. And in between, is a five-mile stretch of Orange County, with a mish-mash of development, the county’s largest population concentration and yet still more trees than people. Flanked by both a battlefield and a Walmart, Rt. 3 has become the collective economic development focus for Orange County government, planning and economic development officials.
Following a May meeting between the board of supervisors, economic development authority and planning commission, county officials agreed expansion of the county’s economy was a top priority.
Continuing that conversation, last month, county officials, landowners and county staff boarded a bus and spent a day visiting successful economic development projects around the state.
They traveled from Orange to Goochland’s West Creek development, to Innsbrook in Henrico, City Center in Newport News and wrapped up with a visit to New Town in James City County before a vibrant and engaging discussion among participants all the way back to Orange.
“We knew if we trapped 25 people in a bus it would turn out very well or be very quiet,” Orange County Administrator Julie Summs said half-jokingly.
It wasn’t quiet.
“There was a lot of excitement,” Orange County Director of Economic Development Karen Epps confirmed.
That excitement was evident at the planning commission’s recent meeting, when chairman Donald Brooks, hoping to capitalize on the energy of the trip, established a subcommittee to continue the conversation.
“I want to make sure this tour isn’t wasted,” he said. “I’d like to see us start something to look in-depth at this and see what we can do for some designated areas.”
The composition of those attending guaranteed a comprehensive discussion.
“Orange County has got to do something,” he continued. “What it is, I don’t know yet.”
Summs said the tour was created so everyone participating—landowners, economic development representatives, planners, supervisors—would have someone at the various stops speaking their language. Landowners talked with other landowners about who pays for what, project phasing, ownership and public-private partnership. Economic development representatives talked about targeting businesses, how to develop and regulatory environments. Supervisors got information on how to market projects and ideas, work with taxpayers, finances and return on investment.
“We were all asking some pretty tough questions and starting to flesh out the ideas and obstacles and started to get a sense that this is possible,” Summs explained.
Orange County Economic Development Authority Chairman Winston Sides noted any comprehensive regional development would not occur overnight. Still, he said last month’s experience was “fascinating.”
West Creek is a 3,400-acre business park on the eastern boundary of Goochland County which includes a four-lane, divided parkway, lighting and landscaping, water and wastewater distribution systems.
Henrico’s Innsbrook Corporate Center and the surrounding acreage is a mixed-use development where residents and small and large businesses including Capital One, SnagAJob and Markel Corporation share amenities, like walking trails, retail shopping, dining and summer music festivals.
City Center, in Newport News, is a mixed-use development with a range of retail shops, restaurants, specialty services, a hotel, hundreds of apartment units and extensive office space.
New Town is Williamsburg’s 365-acre community where people play, work and live with more than 170 shops and restaurants, a movie theater, parks and walking trails and special events.
“It’s time to quit talking and do something,” board of supervisors’ chairman Teel Goodwin said. “The landowners are ready to do something and we have a collective idea of a way to build something to get an economic engine that can work for us.”
What that something is, though, is a work in progress.
“Everything is reasonably fluid and flexible,” Summs said. “We need to think far out but need to be flexible because things change. This is a multi-decade project.”
As county officials, landowners and taxpayers develop that vision, Summs noted the importance of identifying infrastructure, financial and regulatory issues as part of the planning process.
“If we were to develop something on Route 3 tomorrow, we know we don’t have enough water right now to satisfy this type of development,” she said. “How do we tackle that? Is it a regional solution? Is it an impoundment? Where?”
Critical to the vision’s momentum and any eventual actualization will be citizen buy-in. Summs said the county will continue to meet and talk with “anyone willing to listen” and to reach established benchmarks of progress.
Brooks, meanwhile, cautioned tangible progress had to survive the county’s two-year election cycle.
Up next, the board will solicit public comment at its Sept. 24 meeting and listen (with EDA and planning commission members) to a water infrastructure presentation Sept. 25.
“We’ve retreated. We’ve toured. Now we need to go to work,” Brooks concluded.