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2017-09-06 / Featured / Front Page

County has grand plans for megasite

Officials bracing for opposition in Chester
BY JIM McCONNELL STAFF WRITER

If not for America’s most crippling financial collapse since the Great Depression, the sprawling, wooded south Chester parcel that county and state officials now envision as an industrial “megasite” most likely would be teeming with house-lined cul-de-sacs.

It never materialized, but Branner Station was once touted as the largest master-planned community in the Richmond metro area. Approved by the Board of Supervisors in September 2007, plans called for 2,449 single-family homes, 1,331 condos and townhouses, 908 apartments and 300 assisted-living units, as well as 470,000 square feet of commercial space.

Now, county officials plan to swap one mega project for another.

At the historic county courthouse last week, local and state officials announced plans to develop and market the former Branner Station parcel as a 1,700-acre megasite to prospective manufacturers and large-scale industry. The site’s size and proximity to Interstate 95 and the Port of Richmond, Gov. Terry McAuliffe said, could generate a $1 billion investment, up to 5,000 jobs and twice as many indirect jobs.


Garrett Hart, director of Chesterfield Economic Development, and Gov. Terry McAuliffe at last week’s event announcing plans to turn a 1,700-acre site in Chester into an industrial “megasite.” 
ASH DANIEL Garrett Hart, director of Chesterfield Economic Development, and Gov. Terry McAuliffe at last week’s event announcing plans to turn a 1,700-acre site in Chester into an industrial “megasite.” ASH DANIEL McAuliffe, House of Delegates Speaker Designee Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, and Del. Lee Ware, R-Powhatan, joined members of the Board of Supervisors to christen the project as an economic coup for Chesterfield.

“Basically, we’re trading 5,000 houses for 5,000 jobs,” said Garrett Hart, the county’s economic development director.

Following last week’s announcement, Hart said the county’s Economic Development Authority has an option to purchase two properties – including the former Branner Station site and an adjoining 137-acre parcel – for $15.5 million.

“It’s a rare site,” added Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Dorothy Jaeckle, who lives in Chester and has represented the Bermuda District on the board since 2008. “With 1,600 acres and the proximity to a major transportation network, it always was going to be developed. Creating a megasite that brings jobs will have a far more positive impact on the community than the homes that could have been built there.”

The parcels, which are located south of Route 10 between Bradley Bridge and Branders Bridge roads, are expected to be rezoned from residential to industrial and developed to accommodate a large automotive, aerospace or other advanced manufacturing plant.

“It will undoubtedly place Chesterfield in a strong competitive position to attract a transformational economic development project,” Cox said.

McAuliffe acknowledged that Virginia historically has struggled to attract large-scale manufacturing companies because its few megasites haven’t been connected geographically to an adequate labor pool.

Localities also have been unwilling to make the up-front investment to acquire large parcels and put in the necessary infrastructure so the property is ready when a new business opportunity presents itself, he noted.

“In Virginia, we always say, ‘Let’s wait until the business comes, then we’ll build it.’ Well, that’s not how it works,” McAuliffe said. “When an auto manufacturer or aerospace company is about to make a decision, they move very quickly. If the site is not ready, you’re not going to get it.

“We have lost out on a lot of those major projects. We were not even in the game on many of them. This site gives Virginia something unique and allows us to compete for projects on a level we haven’t had before,” he added. County leaders have made no secret about their willingness to use public money as a catalyst for creating jobs, diversifying the local economy and relieving pressure on the residential tax base in what remains largely a bedroom community for the Richmond region.

The Economic Development Authority purchased 1,300 acres in southeastern Chesterfield for the creation of Meadowville Technology Park, which is now home to a massive Amazon.com fulfillment center and a Niagara bottling plant, as well as facilities owned by Northrop Grumman and Capital One.

It also acquired and redeveloped the former Cloverleaf Mall property, breathing life back into Chesterfield’s economically challenged eastern Route 60 corridor.

More recently, the county bought a 105-acre Genito Road parcel that once was home to the ill-fated SportsQuest project. The renamed River City Sportsplex now is the centerpiece of the county’s growing sports tourism portfolio, which generates millions annually in local economic activity and tax revenue.

“Over the past generation, we have seen far too many residents having to drive too far to find quality jobs – often leaving the region,” County Administrator Joe Casey said during last week’s announcement. “Some of our recent successes have reversed such trends. Now the Matoaca megasite will serve as a reminder right in our backyard that we strive to grow jobs for us and our children.” County officials, however, will likely have to convince many of the residents who live nearby and opposed the Branner Station project 10 years ago.

Hart addressed that concern, noting that even a large manufacturing operation likely would need only about 500 acres of the megasite for construction of a plant and related infrastructure. The rest of the property is expected to remain wooded to serve as a natural buffer.

A critical piece of the puzzle is a road that is needed to connect the 1,700-acre megasite to the I-95 interchange at Ruffin Mill Road. In 2007, the developer promised to build the 2½-mile section of road, part of the long-planned East-West Freeway, at a cost of about $70 million. (The county’s Thoroughfare Plan envisions the East-West Freeway ultimately extending from Interstate 95 in Walthall to U.S. Route 360 west of Grange Hall Elementary.)

Much of the concern in 2007 centered around homeowners who lived in the path of the East-West Freeway and faced the unenviable choice of selling their property or having it taken by the county through eminent domain.

Those fears subsided after the Branner Station project collapsed, but plans for the road are being revived. It’s necessary to create convenient access to both the interstate road network and the nearby Port of Richmond. Hart acknowledged that improvements to transportation infrastructure are “key to this project.”

“When they rezoned Branner Station, they were going to build so many houses before they had to do anything with transportation, then they had to reach a really high mark before they had to do [the East-West Freeway],” he said. “This project will require that road up front. Because of the road and the buffers, this will have less impact on the community than 5,000 houses would have.”

Jaeckle pointed out that the property was identified as a future industrial site in the comprehensive plan approved by the Board of Supervisors in 2012.

“There was already an opportunity for citizen input on that change,” she said.

Still, county and state leaders promised there will be community meetings and additional opportunities for Chesterfield residents to weigh in on the project as the Economic Development Authority’s rezoning application is considered by the Planning Commission and ultimately the Board of Supervisors.

“Major projects require transparency and open conversation about their effect on the community,” Cox said. “Together as a team, you will see us be very mindful of area residents.” ¦

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