Money Magazine names city as top area to start a small business

National publication includes Charlottesville as only city from commonwealth; Author Elaine Grant notes area

Money Magazine recently ranked Charlottesville No. 19 on its list of best small metropolitan areas to start a small business. Charlottesville was the only commonwealth city listed and ranked in the top 50 among cities of all sizes.

Chris Engel, assistant director in the Charlottesville Office of Economic Development, said the city is honored but that "doesn't mean we don't have ways we need to improve."

Freelance journalist Elaine Grant, who wrote about the Charlottesville area for the magazine's article, said the impression she gained from interviews with local residents was that Charlottesville is a beautiful place with a great mix of talent, brains and a very supportive community for entrepreneurs.

"After talking to entrepreneurs in Charlottesville, I wanted to move to Charlottesville," Grant said, noting that one of the city's few downsides is its potentially high cost of living. "It's great to have those things together."

Grant gathered from those she surveyed that Charlottesville's quality of life, which is enhanced by the Downtown Mall, vineyards and outdoor activities, has helped new entrepreneurs recruit and retain employees from outside of Charlottesville, despite lower salaries than areas such as Silicon Valley.

Mayor Dave Norris said rankings such as these are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, he said it is nice to get recognition as a community. The downside, however, is that "it does attract more people here and managing that growth is a perpetual challenge," which requires infrastructure to support growth.

Growth is good to the extent that people are coming here to create good-paying jobs for Charlottesville residents, Norris said. But he added that there are too many people in low-wage employment in Charlottesville, a situation which needs to be reversed, and that the city needs more employers to create "well-paying career ladder jobs."

In the current economy, Charlottesville is suffering from its highest unemployment in almost a decade - 5.9 percent - and a historic "underemployment" figure also is approaching the 10 percent level, Engel said. Underemployment, in which people are employed below their skill level, is to some extent associated with recently graduated students temporarily taking jobs in Charlottesville and sometimes staying longer than intended, Engel added.

The University attracts a lot of talent to the community, and Charlottesville employs alumni, faculty and staff who "contribute to the vitality of the community in many ways," Norris said.

Another attraction that Grant noted is the capital available for entrepreneurs with good plans, both from venture capital groups and the Darden School's Batten Institute. The Batten Institute, she said, is a significant provider of resources, including ideas, assistance, mentoring and education.

Darden School Dean Robert Bruner expressed similar sentiments about the school's effect on the local community.

"Generally, the presence of academic institutions is associated with higher rates of economic development in a region," he stated in an e-mail. "In particular, business schools help to bridge the chasm between inventors at universities and the markets they seek to enter. So it is with Darden's Batten Institute, a catalyst for research and entrepreneurial ferment."

Overall, the ranking partially signifies the broad, far-reaching success of the Batten Institute.

"This recognition reflects the kind of impact that Frank Batten Sr. envisioned when he endowed the Batten Institute," Bruner noted.

If not for the University's presence, Norris said, the city would not be as economically well-off as it is.

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