Monday, January 24, 2011

Richmond study recommends support for biotech park

An economic-development study prepared for the city of Richmond calls for enhancing the Virginia BioTechnology Research Park and redeveloping the former Armstrong High School on North 31st Street into a training and education center.

In addition, the study recommends a redevelopment initiative in which the city would identify and assemble up to 200 acres for a new technology or industrial park or corridor.

"The best opportunities for such a redevelopment initiative lie south of the James River, especially in the Manchester area and along Commerce Road," a team of consultants concluded in the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy study.

The 134-page report, which has been approved by the federal Economic Development Administration and is a prerequisite for federal funding, cites the area's access and proximity to rail, Interstate 95, the Port of Richmond and land that could be made available for development.

While directed largely toward federal initiatives, the study emphasizes projects that support the development of work-force skills, as well as jobs in "knowledge-based industries, such as the life sciences and biotechnology sector."

To that end, the study suggests that the city join with state and local partners to seek federal grant funding to support the proposed Virginia Life Sciences Commercialization Center at the BioTechnology Research Park downtown.

As envisioned, the center would include wet and dry lab facilities, offices and space for light assembly. In addition, the city could seek federal assistance to start a revolving loan fund focused on small- and medium-size businesses in the life-sciences sector.

Further, the study calls for redeveloping the former Armstrong High School into a modern training center.

Mayor Dwight C. Jones' administration said the center would mesh with revitalization efforts for the Nine Mile Road and 25th Street corridor, as well as support institutions such as J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College, Bon Secours Richmond Health System and VCU Medical Center.

The high school was closed in 2004, when Armstrong merged with John F. Kennedy High School. The merged school, on Cool Lane, retained the Armstrong name.

The study was prepared by TIP Strategies of Austin, Texas, with help from the Hill-Christian Consulting Group of Richmond, through a yearlong process that included input from business and civic leaders.

The Hill-Christian Consulting Group is led by Sheila Hill-Christian, who worked as Richmond's chief administrative officer under then-Mayor L. Douglas Wilder, as well as a volunteer leader of Jones' transition. She also worked briefly as a paid consultant to the Jones administration and now represents the city on the GRTC Transit System's board of directors.

The Jones administration said it pushed to complete the $164,250 study after the city was on the verge of losing $105,000 in federal grant funds received from 2005 to 2007 to help cover the study's costs. The remaining costs were covered by the city.

In a rushed vote, the city council agreed last month to submit the study to the federal Economic Development Administration. At the time, council members said the Jones administration had not provided enough time to review the document.

Council members also have expressed frustration that the Jones administration has not had a dedicated, full-time director of economic development for the past 15 months. Peter H. Chapman, deputy chief administrative officer for economic and community development, has been serving as interim director while the position has been advertised.

In a statement, the Jones administration said Chapman's department has restored the city's credibility among economic-development stakeholders, including the Economic Development Administration.

"We are truly excited that another important avenue of funding will be opened up to Richmond as a result of completing this strategy," the Jones administration said.

By Will Jones
Richmond Times-Dispatch

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