By Sean Tubbs

Charlottesville Tomorrow

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A long-stalled commercial development on U.S. 29 broke ground Tuesday after the developer announced a $4.2 million loan that will allow the project to move forward.

“There were some dark days during the recession, and it was very hard to get construction financing,” said Mark Green, president of ECorp Management Associates.

The firm is developing the 31,200-square-foot Rivanna Plaza, which Green said is backed by 20 local investors.

At a ceremony Tuesday, Green officially announced that Dunkin Donuts, Ragazzi’s Italian Restaurant and a large daycare facility will be the first three tenants of Rivanna Plaza. The development is located on undeveloped land between the Lowe’s Home Improvement Center, Schewel’s Furniture Store and the Kegler’s Bowling Alley.

In his remarks, Green noted it took 1,333 days between the time he bought the property and the groundbreaking. He said it was impossible to find financing after several major banks collapsed in 2008 during the home mortgage crisis.

“We’ve been through a world economic collapse, our original bank is no longer [in existence] … but we’re still here standing,” Green said.

Green’s holding company for the project, Rivanna Plaza LLC, filed bankruptcy itself in November to buy more time to secure tenants and financing.

“The lending aspect is key,” said Susan Stimart, economic development facilitator for Albemarle County. “The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act gave special provisions for commercial lending, but that never really materialized.”

Green said the project is moving forward primarily because of the local involvement, and because 50,000 vehicles travel past the site every day.

View .PDF of site plan for Rivanna Plaza

“We have local investors, a local bank, some great local tenants and when the going got tough it was the nationals that high-tailed it out of town but the locals understand the area, understand the potential for this site,” Green said. He added that at least 40 jobs will be created by the new Dunkin Donuts and the daycare.

StellarOne bank agreed to grant a loan for the project in part because of a strong local presence.

“Banks are lending,” said Arnold Blackmon of StellarOne. “The opportunities are a little less in aggregate [but] when we find a quality project in a quality community in a pro-business growth environment, it makes for a phenomenal opportunity.”

The Kiddie Academy, part of a national chain, will have enough room for at least 180 children in an 11,000-square-foot building with a large playground.

Rendering provided by Rivanna Plaza LLC

Andy Rod owns Norson, a company that operates more than a dozen Dunkin Donuts stores in Central Virginia. He originally signed on to be a part of Rivanna Plaza back in 2008.

The county granted a special-use permit allowing the Dunkin Donuts to have a drive-through window.

“In our world, [they’re] very important and certainly having the Kiddie Academy here with the parents dropping off their kids and then driving through the drive-through on the way to work wasn’t something that was lost on us,” Rod said. “We weren’t going to walk away from this project.”

No Dunkin Donuts in the area will be closing.

Ragazzi’s, owned by Bart Neumann, will move from its existing location in the Shopper’s World Plaza.

“We need an upgrade, we need a facelift, and we’ve been there for 15 years,” Neumann said. “The [Shopper’s World] center is in a little disrepair. A lot of changes have been going on with Whole Foods moving out.”

As part of the site plan, a new access road will be built slightly to the north of the site and the existing driveway will be closed. The Kegler’s bowling alley will remain.

Green said the county has already approved the site plan and the design for the buildings. He is now seeking building permits and is hoping construction will be completed by March. Rivanna Place LLC is also seeking tenants for a second phase of development.

Supervisor Rodney Thomas said the project was moving forward in part because the Board of Supervisors has directed staff to encourage economic development.

“This could be the beginning of our business district that we’ve been talking about,” Thomas said. “This is what we’re all about in Albemarle County now.”


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