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Photo by David Minor
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Left to right: Key players in Chesterfield County’s Amazon deal included E. Wilson Davis, economic development director; James J. L. Stegmaier, county administrator; and A. Garrett Hart, assistant economic development director. Photo by Isaac Harrell
For more than 20 years, the Varina-Enon Bridge, its elegant, harp-stringed spires soaring above eastern Henrico cornfields and Chesterfield County scrub pines, delivered drivers across the James River and along Interstate 295 to far-off hubs of industry and commerce. The bridge, a hopeful route to the future, helped traffic pass right by — there was nowhere to stop.
By this fall, industry and commerce at last answer the bridge's silent siren's call.
Rising from a 100-acre clearing on the forested Chesterfield side of the river is a massive architectural statement. Though far less inspiring in design than the Varina-Enon Bridge, it is no less lofty in what it represents.
Seattle-based Amazon.com has arrived in a big way — a geography- and economy-altering way — in this northeastern tip of Chesterfield at Meadowville Technology Park.
Last December, as state and local officials announced the online retail giant would be locating fulfillment centers in Chesterfield and in nearby Dinwiddie County, the press releases emanating from the offices of Gov. Bob McDonnell and from the two counties' officials couldn't have expressed just how massive these facilities would be.
Both fulfillment center facilities encompass a million square feet of enclosed space. The Chesterfield location promises to employ at least 1,000 people who will work in three shifts, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, doing the repetitive work of filling orders for small items like shoes or Kindle Fire tablet computers. The Dinwiddie center will see the creation of about 350 new jobs filling orders on big-ticket goods like flat-screen televisions. The fact that the Amazon warehouse will make Meadowville its home is the game changer for Chesterfield, a heavily residential Richmond suburb.
Both the Dinwiddie and the Chesterfield facilities are no more or less impressive in size, but in many ways the Chesterfield site looms larger than its twin. By creating more than three times the number of jobs, that alone makes the Chesterfield project bigger in at least one significant regard. [See Amazon jobs sidebar]
The Dinwiddie project achieves the full potential of the site where it's being built. An industrial park of about 120 acres, it's a cozy fit for a facility that requires 100 of those acres.
The Meadowville Technology Park, however, represents a vision that's bigger not just in size, but also in ambition. Located on 1,300 acres near one of scenic portions of the James River south of Richmond, Meadowville is in many ways a story of success snatched from the jaws of defeat.
Construction at both sites represents a massive $135 million infusion into Virginia's economy by Amazon. But facts and figures are dwarfed by the visitor's approach to the Meadowville site, where the sprawling structure squats among trees that look like weeds by comparison.
The typical commercial or industrial distribution facility is just about 200,000 square feet. A big operation might stretch more than 400,000 square feet.
Amazon's Chesterfield site encompasses 100 acres, and the building itself swallows 25 of those acres. There's room enough for a small town to be encased inside the massive poured concrete walls and under the utilitarian flat metal roof. It's easy to break a light sweat walking its 1,500-foot length. Armies of workers in hard hats pass through at least three distinct climate systems that exist as a result of the varying stages of completion along the long walk.
Already, just six months since breaking ground, Amazon is moving in equipment — massive conveyor belt-driven systems of track that will help move products after they're retrieved from mail slot-style shelving, called pick shelves, that stretch from floor nearly to ceiling and will hold millions of dollars in inventory in endless rows.
The Amazon site already became a massive employment center for the area, creating hundreds of construction jobs with more than 30 subcontracting companies working for Conlan, the project's general contractor out of Marietta, Ga.
Soon they will be replaced by a new crew — full-time and temporary Amazon employees eager to work for a company with a worldwide reputation run by Jeff Bezos, who's famous for his employee-centric work ethic and go-go management sound bites like: "Our culture is friendly and intense, but if push comes to shove, we'll settle for intense."
The Morphing of Meadowville
Meadowville wasn't always envisioned as it is today: Something akin to a sprawling mashup of an industrial park and a well-landscaped resort like Hilton Head, S.C., with a dash of a Rocketts Landing mixed-use lifestyle village thrown in.
It all will revolve around a massive, job-creating nucleus of light-industrial and white-collar office commercial space.
The overarching concept, assistant economic development director Garrett Hart says, is to create a live-and-work environment that looks and acts as much like a park as a jobs center.
Fifteen years ago, when Meadowville first was proposed, aesthetics were far from county leaders' minds.
"I think the best place to start back is the original zoning case in 1996," says Timothy Davey, a principal partner with Timmons Group, a local architecture and project-management firm that began its involvement at the very beginning, when county officials had dreams of duplicating the seeming success of Henrico and Goochland counties by luring the rapidly expanding semiconductor industry to Chesterfield.
"That was the intention," says Davey, who was involved in the early site planning and rezoning cases that created Meadowville. "The semiconductor industry had a history of clustering in other regions like California and in Austin … and Austin was the region we were trying to emulate."
It was a heady time, with news that Motorola had selected Goochland and that White Oak in Henrico already was gearing up. But there was no identified semiconductor producer sniffing around Chesterfield. Still, the county, recognizing the pattern, wanted to be ready.
"It was very strategic and most of the consultants suggested that what the region ought to do is have a third site," says Davey, tall and thin with dark, military-short hair and a site-supervisor's tanned complexion and intensity.
As it turns out, those consultants were wrong. By the early 2000s, the semiconductor industry had waned. Goochland never got its Motorola plant. Chesterfield hadn't even broken ground at Meadowville.
Chesterfield officials remained determined not to give up on the idea — in spite of the disappointment of watching high-paying jobs going overseas where semiconductors could be produced at a fraction of the domestic cost.
"We started looking at other markets," Davey says.
To help, they brought in the Urban Land Institute, a D.C.-based nonprofit to determine best-use scenarios. The organization also aided Chesterfield in planning redevelopment for the long-distressed Cloverleaf Mall site on Midlothian Turnpike.
If the project had remained centered on semiconductors, an industry that typically is ravenous in its land-use needs, the Meadowville site's 1,300 acres were just about perfect for a snug fit. But finding a similarly scaled industry that could build out such a swath of land isn't easy — or likely.
"They determined that we should target multiple types of businesses, because a 1,300-acre project is a large piece of real estate when you're talking about economic development," Davey says. What emerged was an ambitious plan.
Huge tracts were set aside for industrial tenants, a research park and for "flex use" — electricity or data-intensive uses.
"And the one other major thing they suggested we do is build a downtown — or a town center," Davey says.
"It's a very innovative, progressive plan to create not just a technology park or an industrial park, [but] to create a town of Meadowville out there. It's not technically a political or magisterial jurisdiction, but when you think of what it takes to create a town … it has all those things within walking distance of each other."
Throughout the park — as already is exhibited by the manicured tree-lined boulevard leading to the nearly invisible Northrop Grumman complex — landscaping is a central part of the overall project's theme.
Landscaping was a non-issue in the early 1990s when Chesterfield officials first started looking at the Meadowville site. First concerns first: "a major industrial park out here was fairly controversial," Hart says.
At the eastern end of the park, where the technology park's road empties onto Enon Church Road, the church that lent its name to the rural byway sits close to the road's edge as a parade of pickups and the occasional tractor trailer buzz by. Two decades ago, the brick-and-stained glass house of peace served as a place for negotiations between county leaders and the surrounding community.
Though nobody longed for a disruption to the bucolic existence of this quiet corner of the county's Bermuda District dotted with modest ranch homes, the biggest concern among residents was that they wanted "quality construction, quality projects and quality jobs," Hart says.
By 2007, when the county returned to propose the "mature" plan that became Meadowville, the concept was easily approved by the planning commission and board of supervisors.
The Chesterfield Amazon facility represents a small segment of Amazon's worldwide efficiency strategy for delivering products to customers.
Last year, just before Christmas, the company announced launch of its Kindle Fire device, a massive leap forward from its earlier e-book reader to a fully functional tablet computer powered by an Android operating system.
It was around the same time, Dec. 26, that Amazon, along with the state and Chesterfield, announced the new fulfillment centers here.
Taking a production cost loss with the tablet's $200 price tag, Amazon, according to industry analysts, was betting on the Fire as a shopping portal that directs users to its online store. The online store relies heavily on a strategy of guaranteed overnight shipping, which, in turn, has led to more fulfillment centers throughout the country.
The flurry of new fulfillment centers, like Chesterfield's and Dinwiddie's, Hart says, are "all about making sure they can make good on their customer promise."
Even without the Fire, Amazon's bet on a need for more regional warehouses remains a near certainty. In 2010, online retail already was big business, with more than $165 billion in total U.S. sales, according to U.S. Department of Commerce data. By 2012, that number had increased to nearly $225 billion. By 2015, various industry analysts, using trending data and U.S. Department of Commerce statistics, predict the industry will account for more than $335 billion in sales.
Tip of the Iceberg
The effort to secure Amazon in Chesterfield was a matter of teamwork by state and local officials, but nobody knows the process better than Hart.
A big man whose tall frame matches the scale of the plush county-owned SUV he drives, Hart knows what helps convince prospective industries to relocate or expand in his county.
"We call them ‘prospect safety locks'," he says, giving his backseat passengers a sly grin in the rear-view mirror, punctuated by the pop of the SUV's automatic door locks clamping down.
Starting the engine, he pulls away from a dented and dusty construction trailer not far from the Meadowville exit off of I-295.
"Nobody knew about Amazon when this interchange project was coming in," Hart says.
That interchange from I-295 — just a jog from the end of the Varina-Enon Bridge's lofty spire — was crucial to the Amazon deal. The county, along with the help of U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes, R-4th District, worked to secure funding and VDOT's cooperation to get it built, thus jump-starting the entire Meadowville Technology Park project.
By the time county leaders responded in May 2011 to a general request for information that came through the state from an unknown corporate client — the project was code-named Christina originally — Meadowville remained mostly dusty dirt roads.
And while they may not have known Christina was actually Amazon, county officials already had a remarkably clear view of the high hopes they had for Meadowville and were able to sell Amazon officials on their vision.
"They're looking for a place that their employees will ultimately enjoy working," says Davey. "They were willing to some extent to take a chance ... They were willing to believe we would be able to make this site work."
At build-out, the park, owned by the county's economic-development authority, has a total property value of about $92 million dollars. Just add buildings, and Meadowville will be worth somewhere in the range of $1.67 billion, providing a hub for as many as 25,000 new jobs. It will funnel about $20.5 million in annual real estate and equipment tax revenue to Chesterfield, according to Hart.
And adjacent to it, plans are in place — currently on hold due to a sluggish residential housing market — for about 70 acres that will be developed privately by George Emerson of the Emerson Companies as a mixed-use town center called Twin Rivers to complement the business side of the park.
"The EDA took on the responsibility of creating the vision, and we're counting on the private sector to step up and … do whatever else is necessary," Davey says.
Hart says the entire project is a big deal for a county long hobbled by dependence on residential real estate expansion that was good during the boom time, but that has revealed its weakness as a tax base during the bust.
"The purpose of Meadowville Technology Park is ... to provide a strong commercial and tax base," he says, calling Amazon's arrival "the tip of the iceberg."
The hope is the massive Amazon facility is indeed just the tip — that a lot more iceberg will soon emerge behind it.
It seems to be working. On June 27, as this article was being written, Hart and Chesterfield announced a plan by McLean-based Capital One to invest $150 million to build a data center in the town of Meadowville.