MECHANICSVILLE -- “I think we have a great story to share with you today,” Economic Development director Linwood Thomas told the Hanover County Board of Supervisors before presenting his 2018-2019 annual report earlier this month.
This year’s report, according to Thomas, will serve as more than just an intra-county report on economic progress. “We want to use this as a marketing tool. We want to go out and use this report to sell Hanover,” he said.
Thomas’ presentation presented supervisors with a view of the local economy, an update on site-readiness in Hanover, the latest business investments and announcements, efforts to assist existing businesses, an outline of marketing and prospect development, and agriculture and tourism.
“We don’t want to be reactive, we want to be proactive,” Thomas said, regarding the efforts of his agency in all of those identified areas.
Thomas said Hanover is fortunate in the fact the local economy is not based on any one single industry or business and enjoys a variety of ventures in its portfolio.
“We have a well-rounded industry sector base,” Thomas said.
Vacancy rates for business sites are as low as they have ever been, according to Thomas, another indicator of a strong local economy.
Hanover also boasts one of the lowest unemployment rates in the region at 2.4 percent. “Our labor force is really saturated,” Thomas said. The increases in local residents obtaining those new jobs in Hanover were small and Thomas said “many of those folks taking jobs in Hanover are living outside the county. “Everyone who wants a job basically has a job in the county.”
Last year also continued a trend of increasing average annual incomes in the county. For the past five years, that amount has increased at about 1 to 2 percent a year. “Over the last year we improved that to 8.2 percent,” Thomas told the supervisors. The healthcare industry, technical and professional services and company management are experiencing the bulk of that income growth in the county. But, he added, “Everyone has to increase their wages if they want to compete and keep their labor force.”
Finding site-ready sites for prospective businesses is still a challenge with the county’s inventory of available sites. Thomas noted the need to increase that inventory and said last year 1,300 acres (11 new sites) were added to that cue. Those tiered properties can take advantage of Go Virginia and Virginia Business Sites Readiness Program funding, representing a potential $5 million worth of financing available in 2021.
Holland Cedar Lane and Holland/Axselle are examples of sites upgraded over the last year to make it more attractive to potential commercial development.
Efforts to increase inventory have resulted in 468 sites characterized by the new initiative, up from the previously available 109 sites.
There’s good news on other fronts on Hanover’s economic horizon. “Two of our success stories over the last year… are Northlake Commerce Center and Northlake 95, both attributable to efforts taken by the board of supervisors last year.
Thomas alerted board members of the shortage of industrial and flex sites. “We need product,” Thomas said. “We have companies that want to be in Hanover and we have no place to put them.”
The board responded by creating a speculative building program and it has attracted new businesses in new buildings, the first being Brookwood Capital Partners from Raleigh, North Carolina, which is constructing a 152,000-square-foot facility at Northlake with completion expected this fall.
“That building is 100 percent leased. It was 100 percent leased before the roof was put on,” Thomas said. “Major, reputable developers are looking at Hanover to make investments. That’s why we have to keep moving these sites forward.”
Industrial and flex rate sites still remain low due to increased interest in business investment in Hanover.
Based on business announcements made last year, “we probably had one of the top six or seven most successful years across the Commonwealth … projects like Cascades,” Thomas said. “It’s one of the largest industrial announcements we’ve had.”
Blue Bell, Publix, two new hotels and 2,200 new jobs are evidence of that success. “Over the past three years, from a fiscal perspective, we’ve had three of the strongest years we’ve seen in the last 10 years, with the past year being the strongest in that period,” Thomas said.
The county’s growth in new jobs is about double the state average. “That’s pretty impressive, in my opinion,” he said.
In addition to the 53 new business announcements, almost a dozen businesses have engaged in expansion projects totaling more than $40 million, including “It’s important that we are making inroads into growing our existing businesses,” Thomas said.
To further those efforts, Thomas’ department visited 136 businesses during the period and assisted 130 of those existing businesses last year.
“I think a lot of that success comes down to the fact that we are asking the right questions ... to uncover those needs.” the director said.
Last year, 21 businesses in Hanover County were recognized as legacy businesses with more than 50 years of service in the county. “It’s just a way of saying thank you,” Thomas said.
Farms were included in that list of legacy businesses.
After 30 months on the job, Thomas said his goal has been to turn his department into a proactive tool for economic development. “We want to be out there sharing the message of Hanover,” he said. “We’ve revamped our website to make it more user-friendly. People want to access those things very quickly.”
Website and social media visits recorded significant increases during the last 12 months, and the department has added Google translate so Hanover’s message can be viewed globally.
To further those efforts, Hanover County partners with the Greater Richmond Partnership and other organizations to generate leads, but the majority of leads are department-based.
“Farming is still a critical component to local Hanover industry and the economy,” representing hundreds of millions of dollars a year infused.
Tourism of all sorts continues to increase in Hanover and across the Commonwealth. Travel spending was up almost 5 percent and lodging taxes increased 3.7 percent.
Thomas said it’s important to keep an emphasis on sports and agritourism and continue to attract those events.