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WillowTree to transform Woolen Mills into new HQ

The $25 million deal was sealed with an exchange of small tokens.

Gov. Ralph Northam on Monday presented WillowTree Inc. CEO Tobias Dengel with a used Virginia flag to fly over the company’s new headquarters — to be built out of the remains of the historic Woolen Mills factory — while Dengel gave the governor a willow sapling to plant at the state Capitol building.

“Usually, we bring wine, but you all have plenty of wine here in Charlottesville,” Northam joked, as he made the official announcement unveiling the state’s $2 million in grant funding for the project, which will be matched by $2 million in funds from Albemarle County.

WillowTree, one of the fastest-growing digital companies in the country — and Charlottesville’s 21st-largest employer — will spend nearly $21 million to build and lease 85,000 square feet of space at the old textile factory for 10 years.

Hundreds of sweaty WillowTree employees packed into the creaking factory to hear the announcement and see how the 118-year-old relic will be transformed into an elegant home for a 21st-century technology company.

Natural light filtered into the cavernous room through windows made opaque by years of accumulated dust and cobwebs. Vintage string lights hung from rusted steel I-beams overhead. And while well-pressed state and local officials spoke about the power of public-private partnerships, spiders skittered across the hardwood floor and a refrigerator-sized fan squealed while failing to provide any relief from the sweltering temperature inside.

All of that will change over the next 15 months, Dengel said, as builder Branch and Associates erects a “factory of the future.” Instead of working with their hands to make uniforms for war, WillowTree employees will “work with our minds and hands to build incredible software experiences” for some of the largest brands in the world, including National Geographic, HBO and Fox Sports.

Over its 10-year lifespan, WillowTree quickly has busted the seams of spaces it has occupied, growing from three employees in 2008 to 276 today. That number includes 73 employees in Durham, North Carolina, where the company extended its roots in 2016 after receiving overtures from Atlanta, Boulder, Denver and Charlottesville.

As part of “Project Cavalier,” North Carolina and Durham each committed to give WillowTree as much as $73,500 in state incentives, or $1,500 for each job the company created, according to local reporting at that time.

This time around, WillowTree again had multiple suitors — Albemarle County economic analysts dubbed its recruitment effort “Project Daffodil” — but the company is choosing to stay near Charlottesville, moving just outside the city limits.

According to the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia, which conducted an economic impact analysis for the county, the construction project alone will generate 93 jobs and $6.6 million of “value added” economic activity. (Value added is the most commonly used measure of economic activity and is the concept behind gross domestic product, according to the study.)

Between 2019 and 2025, WillowTree’s presence and growth is expected to generate 1,412 area jobs, just 620 of them at the firm itself, according to the Cooper study.

In 2019, the firm’s presence is expected to spur $70.5 million of value added economic activity for the Charlottesville metro area; by 2025, that number is expected to grow to $148.6 million, according to the study.

“That’s a lot of money for parks and schools and small businesses like dry cleaners,” said Roger Johnson, Albemarle’s economic development director, noting that the activity will benefit the city, as well as the county.

Looking at a roomful of young coders and creative types — most wearing company T-shirts and jeans — Johnson corrected himself. “Let’s say it’s money for restaurants and coffee shops, not dry cleaners.”

Just before taking a selfie with the governor and the entire crowd, Dengel made it clear that he, too, values each one of those young employees he has so far been able to attract to the company, and he echoed some of the ethos that apparently drove the Charlottesville Woolen Mills company in the 1800s.

An 1881 company report noted that the company’s profit would be “promoted by whatever promotes [employees’] self-respect, elevates their character, and cultivates local attachments and the home feeling.” The report went on to say that it was impossible to estimate the financial impact of liberal company policies that “shall strengthen our hold on the entire body of employees, and more particularly on those whose value is apt to bring tempting offers from abroad.”

Today those liberal policies and benefits include the relaxed dress code, progressive maternity and paternity leave and, at the new campus at least, access to river sports, electric car chargers and an onsite video game room.

Perhaps unwittingly, Dengel channeled the same paternal corporate sentiment in today’s vernacular: “If we can create a great work environment, people aren’t going to go to UVa and Virginia Tech and [James Madison University] and then go to New York,” he said. “They’re going to stay here. We are attracting the best and brightest from around the country to come here and to work, and that is a sustainable and competitive advantage, and that’s only going to get better as we move into this incredible facility.”

Brian Roy, who is leading the redevelopment of the Woolen Mills property, has spent four years seeking approval for this outcome. On Monday, he stood quietly in the back of the room, shaking hands, enjoying a watermelon popsicle and savoring the “extreme relief” of the moment.

Asked what drove him to tackle the ambitious project — which involved historic preservation, flood plains, rezoning, balancing neighborhood interests and more — he replied simply, “Stupidity?”

“I had no idea if I could get from point A to point Z, but I saw a gorgeous building and I thought it was worth a shot.”

After deadly 2017, Virginia bolsters treatment programs

RICHMOND — After the deadliest year on record for opioid overdose fatalities in Virginia, the state is pouring more resources into substance abuse services, including an emphasis on medication assisted treatment, in an effort to curb the public health emergency. The Richmond region has become the epicenter of the state's overdose epidemic: Richmond, Henrico County and Chesterfield County were all among the five Virginia localities with the most overdose deaths last year.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has boosted funding for substance abuse treatment efforts in Virginia significantly. But the extra money hasn't prevented the death toll from rising nearly every year.

The agency's contribution jumped from $7.9 million in 2014 to $55.3 million in 2016, according to agency data. The amount climbed to $65.3 million in 2017, when a record 1,220 people died of an opioid overdose.

A $9.8 million chunk of that federal grant money went to bolster the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services' statewide prevention, treatment and recovery network. As part of the grant, the behavioral health department identified 35 community service boards scattered across Virginia to receive funding to aid their local efforts to prevent and treat opioid addiction. Of those boards, 23 were selected to expand access to medication like buprenorphine that is intended to prevent the debilitating withdrawal symptoms that keep people using even as their lives crumble.

One of the main goals of the program is to increase accessibility to medication, said Mellie Randall, substance use disorder policy director for the behavioral health department.

"This is a treatable illness," Randall said.

"We have good medications, so we can connect people to that."

Since the program began in January 2017, 1,001 people have been treated with medication, transportation and housing assistance, and 575 people have received continuing recovery assistance, which includes support from a trained peer recovery specialist.

Still, the program has faced difficulties with expanding access to the recovery drugs, in part because the drugs are expensive and in part because many physicians still view substance abuse disorder as a choice rather than a disease, Randall said. Although 800 physicians are authorized to administer medication-assisted treatment in Virginia, only 200 are willing to have that fact publicly advertised, she said.

"Prescribers are subject to the same biases about people with addiction that the general public is," Randall said.

In Southwest Virginia, one of the areas hardest hit by the epidemic, elected leaders, judges and prosecutors have said that buprenorphine, one of the drugs commonly used in opioid addiction treatment, is being abused to the point that it's considered the most common street drug in their communities, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported in 2016.

The same drug, which is also known as Subox one, was responsible for a handful of overdose deaths this year, said Rosie Hobron, an epidemiologist for the Virginia Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

The funding allocations from the $9.8 million federal grant were divided among the different community boards according to the number of opioid deaths in the area, as well as an assessment of the board's strategic plan for using the funding, Randall said.

Richmond , Henrico and Chesterfield had 220 overdose deaths last year, accounting for 18 percent of the statewide death toll. The localities have received $110,000 — or 5 percent of allocated funds — for substance abuse prevention and $686,601 — or 14 percent — for treatment since the program began in January 2017.

Virginia Department of Health data also show that emergency rooms in the Richmond region saw 1,515 patients for opioid overdose in 2017, accounting for nearly 1 in 5 opioid overdose-related ER visits in Virginia.

The state behavioral health department has applied for another related grant from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration for about $31.2 million over two years to further expand funding for the community boards.

Preliminary counts of opioid overdose fatalities show about a 13 percent year-over-year decrease in the first quarter of 2018, with 277 fatalities, down from 320 in the first quarter of 2017, but it's too early to make any concrete conclusions about a trend, Hobron said. The number of fatalities in the first quarter puts the state on pace to eclipse 1,100 deaths for the third year in a row.

And while Randall said that recovery drugs will likely contribute to a decrease in overdose deaths, she was reluctant to say that fatality numbers would go down as treatment programs continue to expand, citing the number of factors that can affect those numbers. The program success will be measured by overall outcomes for the patients — from staying in treatment to increased employment and engagement in education.

"Certainly we would be looking to have an impact on overdose deaths," Randall said. "But we're also looking at the impact on the people that engage in treatment. ... We'll be tracking those folks and seeing how long they stay in treatment and using this information to improve the quality of care."

Public weighs in on Pantops plan update

During a final open house Monday on the concepts for the Pantops Master Plan update, community members shared their thoughts on the work that has been done so far at smaller focus area meetings that began in February.

Pantops is one of Albemarle County’s designated growth areas, the 5 percent of the county where residential and business growth is focused. A master plan for the area was first adopted in 2008.

The plan update started in January, and the Pantops Community Area Advisory Committee and other community members have met to discuss land use and development area boundaries; parks and trails; economic development/redevelopment; and transportation.

Cal Morris, chairman of the Pantops CAC, said the community needs the updated master plan to serve as the guide for the future.

“The current master plan has really done us well for the last 12 years but, hopefully, this one will move us forward,” he said

The goal is to have the Board of Supervisors adopt the plan in March.

Debby Norton said she was excited to see that transportation improvements are being considered.

“I constantly see people who don’t have cars trying to cross [at Route 20 and U.S. 250],” she said. “I feel like pedestrian walkability has been completely neglected. There’s a huge population that’s being underserved.”

Norton said she would like more alternative transportation options, such as protected bike lanes and bus routes that go farther into the Pantops area.

“Especially now that it’s going to be so congested,” she said.

Norton said she was concerned about the “community center” area being proposed in the Pantops Shopping Center area, and the potential for gentrification. The proposed land use category for that area could make it the most intensely developed area with mixed-use and multi-family buildings. The goal would be to serve the public at the regional level, according to a proposed land use document from the county.

“With the history in our city of this constant pushing out of low-income citizens of color, it’s just part of the same tendency that’s concerning to me,” she said.

Stephanie Lowenhaupt, a member of the Pantops CAC, said she thought a lot of ground was covered at the focus area meetings.

“I think the county’s been very good about listening to what people’s feedback is and incorporating it into the plan as much as possible,” she said.

Lowenhaupt said she’s supportive of more park areas and trying to improve transportation options and traffic.

“Traffic’s always an issue,” she said.

Many in attendance Monday gathered around the proposed transportation maps to ask questions about traffic and connections over the Rivanna River.

In a prior round of Smart Scale, the primary method for funding large-scale transportation projects in Virginia, the Charlottesville-Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Organization submitted a proposal for improvements to Free Bridge that would have removed pedestrian access on the bridge to widen the road and created a separate, pedestrian-only bridge. That large project was denied.

“This year, we broke it up into smaller projects that we’re hoping to complete that whole project with,” said Kevin McDermott, Albemarle’s transportation planner.

The county submitted a project for the U.S. 250-Route 20 intersection that would increase the number of turn lanes and rebuild the signals.

Currently, there are no other plans to add bridges for vehicular traffic over the Rivanna. With work being done on the Rivanna River Corridor Plan, a joint effort between Charlottesville, Albemarle and others to develop a vision and action plan for the river area, McDermott said there could be recommendations for bike and pedestrian bridge connections over the river.

“There’s a lot of need for it,” he said.

The Pantops CAC is tentatively scheduled to hear updates on the revisions and endorse the proposed plan at its September meeting.