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Photo by Sarah Walor
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Photo courtesy Short Pump Town Center
Henrico County Manager Virgil Hazelett has many duties, but if there's one that gets top attention from the Richmond region's top official, it's answering his office phone.
"Hello, Henrico County is open for business, how can I help you?" is Hazelett's well-rehearsed greeting, familiar to many area business and government leaders. Hazelett, with his sonorous baritone, delivers this simple greeting with sincerity. After all, he says, customer service is the heart of Henrico's success.
And for 20 years, Hazelett has been Henrico's soul, growing the county less as a suburban bedroom community than as customer-focused business that today operates on a billion-dollar annual budget and employs more than 10,000 people.
When Hazelett retires in January, Henrico will lose its longtime manager, but he will also be stepping down from his post as arguably the Richmond region's most important political figure. Any successful regional project over the past two decades — the Greater Richmond Convention Center perhaps chief among them — would not have happened without his final approval. Many unsuccessful regional projects ended because of Hazelett's failure to bless them.
Before he turns his third-floor office lights out for the last time at 4301 East Parham Road, Hazelett talked to Richmond magazine about his first day on the job, his role in creating the region's other city, and what the future holds for the nation's oldest political jurisdiction, Henrico County.
RM: Do you remember your first day on the job?
VH: I do very well. I came to work [Sept. 5, 1972], and reported to the Department of Public Works at 21st and Main streets .
VH: It was a different county. You were reporting to county offices that were in the city, right? VH: That was the county seat at that point. We didn't have this facility on Parham Road. The [county] brought me on as the county's first traffic engineer. I remember installing the county's 15th traffic signal two weeks after I got here.
RM: So Henrico looked more like Chesterfield back then?
VH: Probably even less than Chesterfield.
RM: Amelia [County]?
VH: Well, it was suburban, but not very [suburban] at that time. The most rapid period of growth in Henrico was in the '70s and the '80s. It was in a dramatic growth period.
RM: So when we look at Short Pump today and the rapid growth of the West End, that's a mere shadow of what was happening when you arrived?
VH: It was a different type of growth. You weren't seeing that much commercial in the '70s. You were seeing some, but it was residential at that time.
RM: So, a project that you've often talked about as a proud moment was the Regency Mall underpass, but what was your first big project with the county other than that stoplight?
VH: There's a lot you do in traffic engineering that nobody ever sees. You have to set up the administrative aspect — the record aspect. We started by evaluating whether we should keep ordering signs or be making our own signs — we established a sign shop, we established a signal shop.
RM: So this was like playing Carl Sagan when you arrived. Before you can bake an apple pie, you had to create the universe.
VH: That's right, and that's what we did. You, in essence, start from scratch. And we started from scratch knowing it would build and build, and of course it has. Dramatic things you do that nobody ever sees.
RM: Did you back then envision in Henrico building and building until you were essentially the region's second city?
VH: Yes, I could see it coming from North Carolina. I actually had interviews in several locations. I'd narrowed it down between Henrico County and Jacksonville, Fla.; two different but similar locations in the aspect that Jacksonville was a city, but it was an incorporated city [inside a] county. It was still growing. In Henrico County, it was simply a suburban county that was coming into its own. But quite frankly, that appealed to me more.
RM: Were you offered both jobs?
VH: Yep. I think the interview with Jacksonville took two or three days. The interview in Henrico took one day. But if I recall correctly, I called Jacksonville immediately [after the Henrico interview] and told them I was no longer interested. I was really tickled coming to Henrico County.
RM: So what you were looking for was a locality that you could grow with as it grew.
VH: I had a master's in traffic engineering. I was 26 years of age. I thought I would stay four to five years. I came in '72 and was actually being interviewed for the traffic-engineering job in Salt Lake City when the then-director of public works announced his retirement. I knew the assistant director would probably get that job, and he asked me to become his assistant director. I had to evaluate simply because my interest in the real world had been in traffic engineering. After [accepting the job], it became more involvement with people and other projects. But as an engineer... you began to see houses, you began to see commercial businesses, you began to see roads, you began to see people. Those were the types of things that really enthralled me at that point in my career.
RM: So it was your real-life Sim City, really.
VH: And you were a part of it. Part of controlling it. Part of directing the services that they were going to get. That's what fascinates me. Every day I get up, it's a new day … I'm not going to see the same thing. That's what I enjoy about it; it's different each and every day.
RM: So back to the earlier question, what was the first big project you did in the county?
VH: Well I guess that would be Regency Square. That came about in '75 — I think they opened in '76. That was an extremely interesting project from the standpoint of the amount of sheer effort that that took … ultimately the grade-separated access.
RM: And that's the tunnel?
VH: That's the tunnel — two of them actually. One of them on Quioccasin and one on Parham Road. When I first came, I stayed with a friend off of Midlothian Turnpike, and Cloverleaf Mall had one road higher than another and Cloverleaf wasn't actually open yet, and what they were actually doing was lowering the road to be level. I couldn't believe that because grade separation into any major traffic generator is a positive. And yet they were just lowering it.
RM: It's a positive in that you can control traffic better?
VH: You can move more vehicles. The demand into a commercial development like that is going to slow up traffic unless it has a free flow and it doesn't obstruct traffic in the other direction. [Regency Mall] turned out well. I still remember the day it opened. About two weeks later a gentleman called me from one of the major department stores and wanted to take me to lunch because he wanted to show me and tell me that in fact they had exceeded their projected sales for one year in just two weeks. They couldn't believe it. It was a tremendous success. I think the grade separation, the access, had a lot to do with it actually.
People came from who knows where to that point to Henrico County.
Back then, before Gaskins Road, you were carrying 30,000 or 40,000 cars a day on Parham Road. Everyone was pleased with it: the developer, the community, the county.
RM: The Lakeside area that popped back up a few years ago with some of the revitalization efforts and how the county administered those projects. What did it look like then?
VH: It was probably more degraded. It has improved dramatically. There were a lot of vacant buildings. I've seen Lakeside really just be lifted up because of what's there. It's a lot better than what it used to be.
RM: As Henrico becomes more urban, the county has come up with some innovative ways to encourage revitalization.
VH: Revitalization is something in the life of any community that is absolutely necessary. All you have to do is look a the history of any community that's developing what I call a natural development migration. Development occurs and development moves. What you must remember is that it's still a part of you. You can't let it decay.
RM: Is that a common mistake by localities to forget those inner rings?
VH: I think it was in [earlier] days. If you look at any city you will see portions of the city that were, from my viewpoint, forgotten. We were fortunate that while we were growing we could look at other localities and see the mistakes that were made.
But for many years, most cities didn't look at it, they just scratched their heads and moved on. We didn't do that and now we have a full-blown effort in community revitalization and enterprise zones and trying everything we can think of … all of these things you take them all and put them in there to entice people to use all your land not just greenfields, but brownfields. Rocketts Landing sat there for the longest period of time.
RM: Was Rocketts a sore thumb for you?
VH: It was in an industrial area. It was next to the river and in a manufacturing area and we couldn't really find a fit. When [developer Bill] Abeloff came along with his ideas of how to develop that, how to change that, a lot of us kind of tweaked our eyes — "Hey, there's something here." And you can see what's there now. Those are the things that happen when you ... think different than people before you did.
RM: Are there any projects you wish could have gone differently? Regrets about projects that didn't materialize as you'd hoped?
VH: Well certainly some projects didn't get completed as I hoped they would. That simply means things changed and got diverted and so forth. When you look back on it, should Three Chopt Road have been widened all the way? That decision was made not to widen it — that was a very controversial project. I think I had 13 public hearings … before the decision was made not to widen it beyond where it is. I thought it should have [been widened].
Parham and Patterson [section] should be redone. I'm not sure that it's going to be, but it should be done. The volumes will continue to grow on Parham, and Patterson is not going to diminish. It may take different forms, but somehow sooner or later, they will separate that intersection.
RM: What about in Short Pump, there was a proposed interchange that VDOT refused to do?
VH: You may be talking about the Gayton Road interchange. We are going to open Gayton Road over Interstate 64 ...not an interchange. That takes FHA approval as well as VDOT approval. VDOT had expressed concerns, although there was always the willingness to talk about it and cooperate, but the FHA doesn't like adding interchanges to highways.
RM: Short Pump started out as a mall, but it seems to have turned into something much more than a mall. At first it looked like a town center, but now it looks like a downtown shopping district.
VH: The mall itself — Short Pump Town Center, or something of that kind — really had been considered for about 20 years before it became a reality. There was a shopping center that was approved [five years] before Short Pump Town Center. [Then] when it became a totally different project, there were a number of us who looked at that and could see what could happen in Short Pump. That this was simply the generator — this was going to stoke the fire and make the difference — and it did.
RM: It's a Disneyfied version of Shockoe Bottom, right? It's a downtown, it's open air, it's got this quaint feel for strolling, and it's even got statues so you're walking through a park.
VH: Uh-huh. The idea for open-air malls really came out of California. When you come to Virginia, this is really a very conservative area ... and they made some very wise decisions when they decided to come to Richmond. One, that they would make it look like Richmond. Yes, it's very different than Richmond, but it feels like Richmond and it has those attributes people gravitate to.
RM: And the architecture makes it feel like a downtown.
VH: That was part of the effort. Right now, Henrico County is the second highest retail sale area in the commonwealth after Fairfax County. There's one reason: Short Pump Town Center. And Short Pump in general now. Once that behemoth started, you could begin to see Broad Street itself simply pop up with associated businesses to the point that it is now a major generator. The thing that tickles me is that if you look at the amount of retail sales per citizen, Henrico County is over $15,000. That is the largest generator of retail sales per citizen in the commonwealth — higher than Fairfax. What does that tell you? That tells you there are more people coming into Henrico County spending that money than just Henrico citizens.
RM: Or we're amassing some serious credit card debt? In many ways it seems to be more successful than Shockoe. What's happened in Short Pump looks more like a small city. I wonder if it's not fairly close, if you were to draw a boundary around Short Pump and call it a city, whether it would be fairly close to the city of Richmond.
VH: I don't think it would be 200,000, but it's way in excess of 100,000 people in a defined geographic area, yes. [And] it's still growing.
RM: So it's a small city?
VH: Oh yeah, it's a small city.
RM:And does it give Henrico some special and interesting opportunities in terms of how it's able to operate? You build your own roads and you have far more latitude in what you can offer developers than any other localities — it looks more like what a city can offer — but you don't have the limitations of not being able to annex. Short Pump can grow.
VH: If you take out the great recession we have been through, you can see that. The greatest boon to Henrico County is [Short Pump] as a revenue source — it doesn't require as much service as a residential community. And obviously the main difference that no one really thinks about — that they should think about — is that we don't have all those children to educate. They're there, they're around it, but that commercial base is generating so much revenue. It will continue to pay for itself and for a lot of what's around it, for a long time.
RM: And as it becomes more citylike, will Henrico think about city services the way Richmond does? Buses?
VH: Yes. It becomes a point of density. A lot of services are dependent on density and don't occur unless you have a certain density. We offer virtually every service a city does with the exception of probably transportation. That's density driven. When something develops and people are attracted to it, who is attracted to it first? People with vehicles. What you're beginning to see now is a change. You're beginning to see more mixed use. More apartments. More highly intensified development, and that's going to change the types of services we offer — and really the type of people who live there.
If you look back to Innsbrook to when it was developed in the 1980s — the premier office park in the United States — well, if you look like 1980, that's a long time ago and it needs to be redone. The developer is looking at some dramatic changes in reference to density, in reference to height, in reference to transportation. If you stopped and looked at it now at 5:30 p.m. in the afternoon, there's no one in Innsbrook. And if you look at a city, that's not the case. What they're trying to do — I'll give West Broad Village credit, it's mixed use. Yes, it came on line during the economic downturn we had, but developers know what a development like that can do, and that's what you're going to see is putting people in these locations 24 hours a day — residential, office, retail.
RM: So we're going to see Innsbrook going up, and we're going to see Innsbrook's after-hours population going up?
VH:You are. It's a positive change in the demographics of the county, and it's a change in development. It's inevitable. You can't continue to spread out and continue to operate the way suburbia did 30 or 40 years ago. It just doesn't work anymore.
RM: Chesterfield doesn't have the same fleet-footedness that Henrico does, right?
VH: This is the advantage we have with a road system … is that you're able to react to the economic development aspect very quickly, which makes a difference. Not only is it the aspect that we own and operate and maintain our own system. We plan that system throughout the county. We've taken ownership of that throughout the years. If you know what you're going to do and how you're going to do it in the future, that's something you show the economic development clients.
I remember when White Oak Technology Park was built — it's a funny little story — there was no road in front of the semiconductor plant and the individuals representing the company said we're going to build this plant in nine months or a year, how fast can you build the road? I looked at them and said, well, if you're going to build this plant in nine months, I'll give you a road in eight months. They just laughed. Several people rushed to them, and after that, they said, "Mr. Hazelett, you do seem to have a reputation that you live up to your commitments." And I said if you'd like to change it and build your plant in six months, I'll build the road in five.
I made the phone call the day we finished the road — their plant was not done. That's hard to do if you don't have control of your road system.
RM: Your job, it looks like it's a job, but it's also a joy for you — and a challenge. What drives that?
VH: Just that, in my viewpoint, I know a lot of people work in jobs they probably don't like. I say I'm very, very fortunate because since coming to Henrico County, I have loved every minute of it. I can say some days are better than others, but there aren't days that I don't get out of bed with a smile on my face. That's what makes the difference.
RM: At what point did you see the writing on the wall that you'd be county manager?
VH: I think it was some time in 1990 that I recognized there was something different going on. Then, in 1991, I was approached to become chief of staff. I wasn't sure exactly I wanted that job because I could be left in that job when [then-county manager] Bill LaVecchia retired. He just laughed and said, "That's why we're putting you there, because you need experience in every area." So it was about that point in time that I knew it was a possibility. Every area I deal in today still draws on my background in engineering. That has allowed me to understand and really focus on the future of what this or that development means — what you can and what you cannot do. It really has made a difference.
We're making a change now. Rumor has it that all of the seven county managers to date were engineers of one form or another. The next one will not be an engineer.
RM: And how is that going to change the county?
VH: It's a different focus. Being in the development community, being a part of public hearings, being a part of the community to this point in time, I feel, was very appropriate ... and it has done the position and me very well. As you're moving to the future in the life of Henrico County and we are hopefully coming out of this great recession, it's finance, it's revenues, it's budget. This is going to be the topic for the next several years. As I've built this team over the years, there are engineers here who are very stable and very strong, so even with someone sitting in this seat that is not an engineer, I have no doubt that the county will be fine and the engineering background will be right in this office whenever [incoming county manager John Vithoulkas] needs it.