At a joint meeting of Albemarle County’s Board of Supervisors, Planning Commission and Economic Development Authority on Thursday, county staff shared an analysis of the county’s unsuccessful attempt to attract Oregon-based Deschutes Brewery in 2015.
“A case study like this allows you to see how complex issues played out in real time,” Assistant County Executive Lee Catlin said. “It’s important that we are all very focused on lessons we can learn, so we don’t keep looking in the rearview mirror, but move forward down the highway.”
Deschutes ultimately chose to establish its first East Coast brewing facility in Roanoke. Catlin said the brewery would have brought $95 million to $100 million in capital investment to Albemarle, and created 132 jobs.
“These are the career ladder, entry-level, opportunity for advancement kind of jobs that are valuable to our community,” Catlin said.
Deschutes representatives toured sites in Albemarle’s designated growth area in secret visits to the county in early 2015. After their visits, they asked county staff to submit additional sites for consideration.
“None of the sites the consultant looked at the first time around really checked all of their boxes,” Catlin said.
Deschutes became intrigued by land near the intersection of Interstate 64 and U.S. 29, partly because the site would have connected the brewery to a national transportation network extending in all four cardinal directions.
Catlin said the site’s proximity to UVa, Ragged Mountain Natural Area and other recreational assets also made it attractive to the company.
After studying the steep topography of the site, county staff determined that it would be difficult for the Deschutes facility to fit into the part of the property located within the county’s development area.
“The topography was a challenge, but it was also appealing,” Catlin said. “These [Deschutes] folks are from Oregon— they really liked the more rugged, natural feel of the site.”
In June 2015, the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors approved an expedited review process to determine if land southwest of the highway interchange should be added to the county’s designated growth area. County planning and economic development staff recommended expanding the county’s growth area by more than 230 acres.
“It’s important to state that the Board was very clear that they wanted to follow the usual steps of the [Comprehensive Plan amendment] process,” Catlin said. “But there was a very compressed timeline.”
“We would have had to do a Comprehensive Plan amendment and a rezoning; both lengthy public processes with uncertain outcomes,” Catlin said. “When you talk about risk, uncertainty and cost, that is a really challenging scenario to keep any site selector interested.”
In August 2015, the Planning Commission recommended against the Development Area expansion by a 7-0 vote. Previously, the Virginia Department of Transportation informed county planning staff that the brewery would significantly increase the amount of traffic near the highway intersection.
Planning Commissioner Karen Firehock said VDOT would not prioritize a highway expansion project near the potential brewery site because there was not enough economic activity there at the time.
“You get into this catch-22,” Firehock said. “You can’t have the jobs there because the transportation is terrible and you have all these trucks coming across, causing havoc. … How do you overcome that?”
“You wouldn’t want to have a large facility waiting for five years— five years of car crashes and traffic nightmares— to finally have enough problems and jobs be able to qualify for transportation improvements,” she said.
The Board of Supervisors eventually approved a 51-acre expansion of the Development Area in September 2015, but designated 13 of those acres as park land.
Supervisor Rick Randolph said the notion that Albemarle’s elected officials or government staff were to blame for “losing Deschutes” was “a piece of mythology.”
“It isn’t that Albemarle lost Deschutes, it’s that Roanoke won Deschutes. And the question is: at what cost? What was the incentive package that made that occur?”
In 2016, Deschutes announced that it had selected a 49-acre site in the Roanoke Centre for Industry and Technology owned by the City of Roanoke. The city will waive the sale price of $2.75 million for the land if Deschutes meets a series of performance goals.
“We were competing with communities that were putting very large incentives on the table,” Catlin said. “It is hard to compete with a community [like Roanoke] that not only controls the land, but gives the land away.”
“I agree that we did not have a site ready for that particular company, and that Roanoke was ready for it,” said Supervisor Liz Palmer. “The issue really was that, legally, it’s important for us to follow the Comprehensive Plan amendment process before we expand the Development Area.”
Palmer added that the county should have sought input from VDOT earlier in the site selection process.
John Lowry, a former chairman of the county Economic Development Authority, is challenging Palmer in this year’s Board of Supervisors election for the Samuel Miller District. Lowry said the Planning Commission’s concerns about traffic from the Deschutes Brewery were overblown.
“There’s no question there would be more traffic, but I don’t think there would have needed to be a stoplight there,” said Lowry, who was not present at Tuesday’s meeting.
Lowry said the Board of Supervisors could have made a stronger bid for Deschutes with more financial incentives. He said the county would eventually recoup its investment through real estate taxes on the property.
“A business [like Deschutes] knows that it is a valuable commodity,” Lowry said. “We have to appreciate the fact that they are worth the investment.”
“The lesson from this is that the Supervisors are supervisors—they are not micromanagers,” Lowry said. “Supervisors need to have decisive leadership. And there was not an interest in being leaders in August 2015,” he said.