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Illustration by James Callahan
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Jay Stegmaier at the Tranlin groundbreaking last October (Photo Courtesy Brian Fulk)
When James J.L. “Jay” Stegmaier hangs up his spurs in retirement on July 1, the Chesterfield County administrator will have ridden a whirlwind of growth since he took office nine years ago. Among the highlights he cites: $3.2 billion in new business development since 2008; a 10 percent increase in county businesses since 2011; the largest manufacturing employment base of any county in Virginia; outstanding county debt down 30 percent since 2009; and a triple A bond rating.
Couple all of that with the county’s population boom, and you’ve got something approaching a juggernaut. Between 2000 and 2010, the county’s population grew 22 percent, outpacing Richmond’s growth more than sevenfold, and edging out Henrico’s 17 percent growth rate. It now has the region’s largest population, with an estimated 332,000 residents, making it the third most populous county in Virginia.
“I think Chesterfield has and will be the preferred place to live, if you believe that people vote with their feet,” Stegmaier says.
Founded in 1749, Chesterfield was for most of its history a rural, low-income farming community. It could never be described that way today.
Among other things, it has developed a strong middle class — the median family income is $72,088, which is higher than that of the state and region, as a whole. It also is developing pockets of high-income residents. For example, the 23113 ZIP code for Midlothian ranks highest in the Richmond region, with a (2014) median household income of $124,946, according to the research firm Esri.
To create jobs and help pay for schools, roads and other infrastructure demanded by its soaring population, Stegmaier says the county has had to succeed at economic development.
“Almost half the investment announced in the past 25 years has occurred in the past eight years,” Stegmaier says. “Economic developers have been looking at Chesterfield and saying, ‘How the heck did they do this?’”
Maybe this will help explain it.
Outside the window of the Chesterfield County Economic Development office on Courthouse Road near the government center, a lone turkey buzzard — nature’s messenger of death — perches on the limb of a tree awaiting its next meal of carrion.
Garrett Hart, the county’s director of economic development, says the bird, nicknamed “Ed,” is a frequent visitor.
“In community development, you have two choices: grow or die,” he says, perhaps reflecting on the turkey buzzard’s larger meaning.
In March, Southern Business and Development magazine named Chesterfield Economic Development as the best large-market economic development agency in Virginia.
Nothing has been so emblematic of Chesterfield’s success in economic development as its wooing of the Shandong Tranlin Paper Co., which broke ground in October on a $2 billion advanced manufacturing plant on an 850-acre site along the James River near Willis Road.
The plant is expected to employ about 2,000 people by 2020. Tranlin also is expected to spin off an unparalleled opportunity for farmers because it will make paper tissue and tableware using wheat and cornstalks left over after harvest.
At full production, Hart says the company likely will use all the leftover wheat and cornstalks from Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, along with other agricultural waste products that might be adapted for paper production.
“Once in operation, the demand for agricultural waste will provide an additional $50 million in annual income to Virginia farmers,” Hart says.
The county is also home to the largest production facility in the nation for hummus, and the largest domestic producer of Trojan condoms.
County officials say several factors underscore the county’s success and its potential for future economic growth. One is the availability of land. It has 437 square miles to Richmond’s 62.5. By one planning department analysis, 54 percent of Chesterfield’s land mass is available for development in one form or another. Another factor is location. The Boyd Co., a corporate-site selection firm based in Princeton, New Jersey, last year named Chesterfield as the top East Coast site for logistics-related businesses. That designation includes the lowest annual operating costs for distribution warehouses among the country’s best 25 areas for logistics businesses.
UPS, online retailer Amazon and Medline Inc., a medical supply company, are all big companies with logistics operations in Chesterfield.
Yet, despite all the companies that have located in the county so far, Stegmaier says about one-third of its workforce still must leave the county for employment. Creating more jobs in the county has been a priority, he says, and will be a challenge for his successor.
Stegmaier says the county also needs more quality retail to increase tax revenue — and intercept shoppers headed to Short Pump. On that front, construction of the nearly 150,000-square-foot Costco development in North Chesterfield and the arrival of Wegmans Food Markets Inc. — the high-end grocery retailer —in Midlothian are wins.
Wegmans says it will hire 550 employees — 500 of them local. It opens its 115,000-square-foot store in the Stonehenge Village Shopping Center on Midlothian Turnpike this month.
Stegmaier says that just as Chesterfield has huge opportunities moving forward, it also faces challenges. The county is aging, and has a growing number of Latino households living in poverty.
And then there is the Jefferson Davis Highway corridor. In the Northern Jefferson Davis Special Area plan zone — 15 square miles occupied by industry and 12,000 people — 23 percent of residents live in poverty, That’s almost four times the poverty rate in the county as a whole. The plan seeks to develop goals for growth and development with community input. The first draft should be ready this summer.
To summarize Stegmaier: Much accomplished. Much yet to be done.