The University is the largest employer in Charlottesville.
But it's definitely not the only one.
In the past few years, industries such as e- commerce, biotechnology and telecommunication have blossomed in the area. Route 29 is dubbed a "pipeline" because information and capital zips along the former country road. An influx of white collar opportunities supplement service-sector jobs.
In order to analyze Charlottesville's changing corporate environment, The Cavalier Daily invited five local business leaders to a forum at the Virginia National Bank on Main Street. On the panel were the mayor of Charlottesville, the president of Virginia National Bank, the owner of HotCakes bakery, a University professor and a recent graduate.
The purpose was to discuss the state of local businesses, how it's changed and where it's headed.
From research to real estate, international ties to Internet startups, a spectrum of issues arose. The purpose of the conversation however, never changed: dissect Charlottesville from a business standpoint and shed light on what drives the local economy.
JUMPING ON THE JOB WAGON
Charlottesville is a combination of big-name businesses and mom-and-pop outfits.
In an era when the former tends to eject the latter from its small town roots, Charlottesville has managed to sustain both.
Corporate branches like State Farm Insurance's Eastern Regional Office and GE Fanuc, a joint venture between General Electric Co. and Fanuc, Ltd. of Japan, employ thousands of workers.
But according to the Chamber of Commerce, 80 to 90 percent of local companies are "small businesses," meaning they have 30 employees or less. This wealth of job options is one reason Charlottesville's unemployment rate blazes red hot at only 1 percent.
In regards to employment patterns in the city and county, participants saw an entrepreneurial spirit fuel, among other things, a growing technology industry:
Blake Caravati, mayor of Charlottesville: "I think we're a city of entrepreneurs. The traditional view of blue-collar industry is non-existent here. Government is big, as is State Farm and GE Fanuc, but in the City of Charlottesville and in Albemarle County it's people like McEwan and myself - small business owners, entrepreneurs, high level professionals.
Eric Meier, McIntire Professor: I came at the cusp of technology infiltrating the area, and when Value AmMeiera hit it really proved that Charlottesville can support a technology-based company. The opportunity for knowledge-based service industries that don't require location specificity and a population center nearby is immense- we've got the band width and pipeline nearby and I'm surprised there aren't more entrepreneurial Internet start ups here.
Greg Herrington, (CLAS '01), founder of TopikSolutions: I got here in the same time frame as Professor Meier- when people were doing these startups. When I got here, William Martin had just done Raging Bull and it was huge.
My business was founded here and this is where the workers are. It's also where the capital is. We have no desire to move to a place like Northern Virginia, and no need to. We find everything we need here, especially since the pipe is so quick. We're quite content to stay here.
Mark Giles, Virginia National Bank President: But you have to keep things in perspective. Charlottesville is a small place and you're only going to have so many graduates able to locate here into the existing jobs and existing industries.
Although Charlottesville can only accommodate a certain number of workers, the city has a hard time retaining students after graduation. Participants debated what are some incentives that are going to keep University kids in the area, especially in tighter times.
Meier: When I speak to a lot of students, especially when they're interviewing, they cannot wait to get out of Charlottesville. Because they went to school here and you have the mindset that you're ready to go to a bigger city. You'd have to be pretty attractive to keep students here because on graduation day all their friends leave and then they're starting over. I think that can be a tough sell in itself.
Lisa McEwan, HotCakes owner: But we might get the more attractive side of that, which is the kids who graduate from Darden or McIntire and go to a big city and then come back here.
Mark: I think Lisa hits a great point. Charlottesville is a great place to come back to, when you've gained some experience and perspective somewhere else.
And I also think Charlottesville is a fantastic place to be at with contacts elsewhere. It really works. Charlottesville has cache, which is very interesting. I'm thinking about the people who I met with this week, like a fellow with a plant in Indiana and here. Contacts I have with people in Indiana and Texas will be very helpful to this guy. We have a background of contacts here, which is very unusual. People have a lot of things going on elsewhere.
Herrington: It's hard because when you get out of college, you want to go to New York or DC. When we graduate from here, it's that "I want to go away for college" syndrome all over again. I'm from Louisiana, and that's what I did when I came here.
But right now I also have lots of friends who were supposed to be working somewhere else but their jobs have been deferred or rescinded. And they're sitting in Charlottesville planning their next move. Should I just go out to San Fransisco and look for a job? When can I go to New York? What's a good time to interview? Nothing though about trying to get a job here.
CAPITAL AND INVESTING:
In the March 2000 issue of Virginia Business, Charlottesville Venture Group co-founder David Martin predicted "Charlottesville will see a huge leap in investment capital in the next three to five years."
Venture capital from both residents and investors across the nation have fueled startups like Boxer Learning and Value America. Non-profit organizations like the Charlottesville Venture Group also help local companies generate funds. The Cavalier Daily asked participants to describe what makes Charlottesville an attractive place for seed money.
Blake: I haven't explained this to myself yet- why do we attract extremely wealthy people like flypaper? Not only wealth in their pockets, but wealth in their networks and contacts, which is the real capital that makes things grow. There are some very prominent ones here and I haven't answered the question- maybe it's our bucolic setting and lunch at HotCakes (laughing).
Mark: A lot of people talk about the natural beauty of Charlottesville, which is absolutely compelling- it captures people. But I think there's also a common bond of respect for this place- people chose Charlottesville affirmatively who either go to school and try to find a way to stay here, or others.
This respect for Charlottesville's pristine mountain land hangs in the air now though.
While the city is surrounded by green farms, development threatens the landscape. Route 29 and Hwy. 64 are key sites for growth. Renovations are taking place everywhere from the Amtrak Station on Main Street to the Paramount Theater in the downtown mall.
Participants were asked to consider how this rapid development could change Charlottesville, and how scared people are of that prospect.
Mark: Paranoia is probably the right word. Look at what's happening right now- you have the County government really leaning toward no-growth.
Blake: Absolutely- I spend most of my time wearing my mayor's hat trying to defeat that. But the city is struggling- it might appear to you guys that we're doing just fine but if you look at our balance sheet over time, we're not doing very well in terms of the future.
We have problems we have to deal with like density issues in both residential and business areas, or the fact that 22 percent of our population is low-income and 54 percent are on free or reduced lunch at school. The county is not doing as effective a job it can to not just control growth but also make it "good growth." We're much better at it in the city, for many reasons.
McEwan: What sort of tools can the county use to get to "desirable growth"?
Blake: It's totally political will. [The General Assembly needs to help with these issues], like reducing car traffic or reducing the residential construction in rural areas. A prime example of that is Meadowcreek Parkway. What that represents is a large scale, long-term political battle that's still going on.
According to Mayor Caravati, Charlottesville has been trying to expand international connections in the past few years. This surprised most participants, and prompted the Mayor to elaborate on the issue.
Blake: We have a sister city with Poggio A Ciano in Italy, and the cultural implication is obvious. But on the commercial side it's ideas- for example next month their mayor and some people from their Chamber of Commerce are coming here specifically looking at developing commercial ties in microtechnology.
Bringing the cultural elements here are kind of sexy- its hard not to send school bands to France or Italy, but now the evolution of sister cities is really starting to point towards commercial cohabitation.
It's very real and the French are very good at it. In our case it's very pronounced because we both have Universities with large hospitals- last year four neurosurgeons came over and spent a week [here]. Something that could come out of that would be a Franco-American company- now that the Internet's penetrated into France it's a bigger issue.
ROUTE 29 SHOPPING CENTER
Next June, a town center called "Albemarle Place" will be built on the corner of U.S. Route 29 and Hydraulic Road. The 'town center' concept melds residential and commercial spaces and encourages people to walk more. They are popular in dense hubs like Northern Virginia.
The Cavalier Daily asked participants to evaluate how well this town center design will hold up in Charlottesville.
Blake: I'm doing everything I can to stop it... (laughter) But it's a threat to the city that's pointed at Barracks Road. And I think Barracks Road is going to beat them to the punch- I don't think they stand much chance of building 1.8 million sq. ft. in the next 6 years. There's major problems with it- access being number one, and I think that has to be solved before it comes. There's high suspicion it's a big box park in disguise.
Hospitality has always been an integral, if some what cyclical, part of Charlottesville's economy. Hotel and restaurant business peaks during the school year as students and their parents use facilities for parties.
Outside of University business though, it is uncertain how large Charlottesville's hospitality industry is. Participants considered this issue.
Blake: I don't know if it's a huge market, but it's definitely a major one. There's a crisis going on right now since they can't find employees- we even have a Friday afternoon demonstration about living wage on the downtown mall, so there has to be some importance to that.
Mark: I know Charlottesville is busy on football game weekends, but for the tremendous number of the people who go to Monticello, it's a midday stop on the way to somewhere else. And there are a lot of people who like it that way. They don't want to have evening shows or things that make them stay overnight.
Also, right now when a lot of people who come to downtown Charlottesville after going to Monticello think it will be an extension of that- sort of a colonial place. I hear them on the mall and they're saying "What's the deal here? Where's the Williamsburg look?"
To conclude, each participant offered a view of what Charlottesville will look like in the next 10 to 20 years. They admitted their fears, and also provided predications and hopes.
Meier: I don't want it to look like Northern Virginia. I want to keep urban sprawl out as much as possible.
I also hope it becomes a stronghold for tech jobs that are low impact and environmentally sound.
Herrington: This is definitely a place I'd come back to. I think Charlottesville will have a strong affinity to attract new people. And despite the back and forth about "Do we grow? Do we not grow?", I think to some degree, we will see a lot more of these white collar industries emerging here. In terms of students staying here, that's what I see them staying for, even on a small scale perhaps.
Mark: I still see the Charlottesville wagon being hitched to UVA. And I think the future of UVA is very bright. The money the University Endowment has drawn is incredibly well-timed.
I [also hope] students [develop] a better sense of the dichotomy between the wealth class and the underclass in this town- there's a huge gulf there, and I'm hopeful that through technology companies that gap will be bridged. Because that's a real problem that Charlottesville has.
McEwan: What I'm really counting on is the people who are intelligent and have a vision of seeing this place in a beautiful way can do a better job of sculpting the area's growth.
Blake: I believe Charlottesville will become a truly urban place. It's only suburban now.
I'm also optimistic that the town gown relationship will be a lot easier. And I don't want to blame UVA for everything, but I hope they won't be as insular as they are now. I'm talking about the administration, not the students, but I think that trickles down. UVA does a lot, but it's important UVA turns its face out more, not always in.
[Lastly] is Albemarle county- I hope there will become more of a regional government where [the city and county] share each other's pain and resources rather than having a dichotomy all the time... These people have had enough cat fights.
The conversation was broad, but some clear trends could be distilled. IN terms of industries, Charlottesville businesses are moving towards technology and research more. While manufacturing still exists, it is slowly being replaced by IT sector jobs.
With regards to real estate, the city is heading towards an era of major construction, and will have to battle with residents and county officials to achieve growth. Retail and office spaces along major roads, as well as development near the downtown mall offer the most potential for expansion.
And finally, while students consider Charlottesville a "college town," there are also opportunities to stay and work here too. Many people do, and as the city resculpts its business environment, there is a good chance more students will.