A new lease on life is coming to the historic Woolen Mills factory at the confluence of the Rivanna River and Moores Creek.

WillowTree Inc. on Monday announced that it will leave its offices near the Charlottesville Downtown Mall to anchor the redevelopment of the building at the end of East Market Street in Albemarle County. The $30 million project by developer Brian Roy also will have space for a coffeeshop and a restaurant.

The main entrance will be off Broadway Street, and the projects is expected to be completed by the end of 2019.

“As a homegrown Virginia company, WillowTree’s rapid growth is a strong testament to what technology companies can achieve in the commonwealth,” Gov. Ralph Northam said in a statement.

“We are thrilled WillowTree will remain an integral part of the community and are confident this innovative company will continue to thrive in its new Albemarle County headquarters,” he said.

The unveiling of the company’s $20.6 million investment took place in the space just outside city limits. Inside the old mill, which most recently served as storage and moving company, WillowTree employees and county and state employees viewed renderings of the renovated building, took a virtual reality tour of it and gravitated to a popsicle stand for a respite from the August heat. Once the work is completed — and climate control is installed — WillowTree will occupy nearly 85,000 square feet and expand from about 200 employees in the area to about 400. The space also will allow the company to grow to up to 500.

“The most important thing for us is getting everyone together in one place working tightly together, and this affords us the opportunity to do that,” said Tobias Dengel, CEO of WillowTree.

Although most of the company’s 280 employees are in Charlottesville, there was a lack of a large enough space to house them all and give WillowTree room to expand. A decade ago, when it was company of just three people, WillowTree sought to grow in Central Virginia despite firms developing apps and other software gravitating to areas such as Silicon Valley, Dengel said. Now, WillowTree wants to stay because of the ability for workers to have easy commutes and be near natural resources and other activities, compared to other national tech hubs.

Woolen Mills will have public transportation through a public-private cost sharing agreement, according to a news release, a focus on bicyclists and charging stations for electric vehicles. Additionally, the development will close a gap in the area’s trail network, officials said.

“This project is going to finally tie together the Rivanna Trail by a bridge over Moores Creek,” Dengel said.

Northam during his remarks Monday announced a $500,000 grant from the Commonwealth Opportunity Fund and a $1.5 million Virginia Economic Development Incentive Grant for the WillowTree project. Ann H. Mallek, chairwoman of the Albemarle Board of Supervisors, said the county and the Albemarle County Economic Development Authority will provide tax revenue-based financial support and workforce development funding that will match the state incentives.

“Twenty-first century jobs that meet the needs of an increasingly mobile, tech-savvy population and workforce are key to building an economy that grows well into the future,” state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, said in a statement.

As the company is expanding and has global clients like GE, PepsiCo, Wyndham Hotels and the World Wildlife Fund, the move marks new revenue for the region and not just a shift of employees from the city to the county, Mallek said.

“We’re not really pushing deckchairs around,” she said.

“The Woolen Mills is an iconic site where WillowTree can grow their company and realize their vision of a state-of-the-art corporate campus,” Mallek said.

Woolen Mills operated from the 1870s until 1962 and once was one of the largest mills in the nation. Northam said that he almost felt a connection to the factory.

“I grew up on a small farm on the Eastern Shore and we raised sheep, so some of the wool that we produced might have come here into this plant,” he said to laughs.

Dengel said he was excited about building upon the site’s legacy.

“For a hundred years, this was, as the governor mentioned, a wool mill where people worked with their hands,” he said. “Now, we are going to be working with our minds and hands to build incredible software experiences. This is the factory of the future.”


Elliott Robinson has spent nearly 15 years in journalism and joined Charlottesville Tomorrow as its news editor in August 2018 through 2021. He is a graduate of Christopher Newport University.