Mapping out the future redevelopment of the Central Virginia Training Center site has been a constant source of discussion among Lynchburg-area officials over the past few years as closure looms in mid-2020.
The most pressing question remains: What is the best use for the property’s next chapter?
Jeremy Bryant, Amherst County’s director of community development, said forming a master plan for the Madison Heights site is a major priority. The county doesn’t know if a college campus, a medical facility, a retail attraction or a hub for housing, among other ideas, is the best path forward. But county leaders do know this: It is critical the site not remain dormant.
“It is a game changer,” County Administrator Dean Rodgers said of the property landing a new successful use.
In October 2013 – nearly two years after former Gov. Bob McDonnell announced the center’s closure by July 2020 – an economic study on CVTC found it had an overall $87.1 million impact on the region, including more than 2,000 employees at its peak in the 1980s.
The Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance is leading the charge for the creation of a redevelopment plan to bring new life to CVTC, an endeavor that affects Lynchburg and the surrounding counties, too. Those efforts recently received a boost with GO Virginia, a business-led state economic development initiative, approving a $100,000 state grant for the redevelopment plan to go forward.
Amherst County’s board of supervisors and economic development authority each contributed $50,000 and the Central Virginia Planning District Commission also gave $150,000 toward the needed amount of $500,000 to initiate the plan. Megan Lucas, executive director of the business alliance, has said the alliance is committed to raising the rest.
Lucas spoke about the site’s redevelopment with the Amherst County Economic Development Authority in October and described the plan as essential in creating design guidelines and standards that will allow the county to create an overlay district that oversees future uses.
“I liken it to an Air Force base, a military installation,” Lucas said of CVTC’s layout. “It’s a self-contained facility and has all the elements that go with that. It’s a critical issue for the area. We’re trying to chart a course for the future.”
Lucas said once the redevelopment plan is complete the alliance and area officials will shop it around to developers across the country with experience in such sites. A major challenge is the vast majority of just more than 90 buildings on site are deteriorating and in poor condition.
In late 2018, two Virginia firms estimated rough costs for site cleanup at CVTC, including razing the site of buildings, and determined it would take between $50 million to $100 million. It isn’t expected the state will spend that much money, according to Lucas’ recent discussion with Amherst EDA members.
“I don’t think there’s the political will to do it,” Lucas told the EDA of the state investing to remove those structures.
Rodgers said a major legislative issue for the area is securing state money to help prepare the site for redevelopment. “We need our local legislators to carry that weight for us,” he said during a recent country retreat session.
Lucas described the redevelopment plan as a “community-driven process” that would include data collection and public engagement. The hope is the plan will be completed before the site becomes surplus property in the hands of the Virginia Department of General Services following the closure scheduled for summer 2020.
“We want to solve this problem for the region,” Lucas said of the redevelopment. “It’s not going to be easy.”
With employment exceeding 1,000 workers for much of its 108-year history, CVTC for decades was Amherst County’s leading employer. Victoria Hanson, the Amherst EDA’s executive director, said she does not know exactly at what point in recent years it ceased being the county’s top employer.
Not including local government, the county school systems or retail business such as Lowes and Walmart, the county’s current largest employer is Glad Manufacturing with about 350 employees, Hanson said.
Hanson said the CVTC site is “perfectly positioned” for redevelopment across from a revitalized downtown Lynchburg with close proximity to the James River and the U.S. 29 Business corridor and U.S. 29 Bypass.
“Amherst County has taken a major economic blow with the drawdown and loss of jobs and economic activity,” Hanson said. “The redevelopment of CVTC at its highest and best use is a tremendous opportunity for the people of Amherst County and the region to gain jobs, new investment, and a thriving community rather than an abandoned and blighted site.”
If a significant delay in the redevelopment occurs, roughly 90 buildings and the site’s infrastructure will further deteriorate and desolated properties often are prone to crime, Hanson said. County officials have said one outcome they don’t want to see is another Phelps Road school situation, referring to a former school facility that closed nearly three decades ago and eventually became an eyesore to its Madison Heights neighborhood within a few miles of the training center.
Calvin Kennon, chairman of the Amherst EDA, said if the CVTC site remains empty and unused it will not age well and become a hardship for the community. Hanson said the property’s successful reuse is critical for having a vibrant, thriving business and residential community in the heart of Madison Heights.
“Time is of the essence to complete the redevelopment plan,” Hanson said.
Lucas recently told the Amherst EDA it’s not acceptable for the CVTC site to be left alone and become blight on the county and the region. “It’s unfortunate that it’s closing,” Lucas said. “The geeky economic developer in me likes a project that’s so challenging and has so many different tentacles in it. But it’s going to be a long-term project. And I think we have a real opportunity here, a real opportunity to significantly impact Amherst County and Madison Heights and its future.”
Rodgers said Lynchburg has limited land for redevelopment so CVTC is a high interest spot for regional benefit to the city. However it redevelops will factor into the fabric of the Amherst community, he said.
“That place is our future.”