If not for the University of Virginia’s 49-7 loss in the 2017 Military Bowl, WillowTree Inc. might have decamped to a tech hub like New York or Silicon Valley.

Facing biting cold and a score of 28-7 at halftime, developer Brian Roy retreated from Navy–Marine Corps Memorial Stadium and his mind drifted back to a building he had been thinking about for several years.

“It was love at first sight,” he said of the Woolen Mills factory, which operated from the 1870s to 1962 at the end of Market Street in Albemarle County.

Roy had been working with the Thach family to create something at the site. Plans for the 10-acre site included 95 residential units, a restaurant, light industrial space and other non-residential uses. Snags included working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency over the Rivanna River floodplain and a change to federal historic tax credits that would have made renovating the complex unfeasible before he was ready to purchase the building.

As Roy thawed out, he got an idea.

“I went to a bar and had a few cocktails and got enough courage to call [former property owner Presley Thach’s] brother, who was involved in the purchase, and said, ‘I need to buy this building in the next three days.’ And he said, ‘Great. Give me the money, and we’ll make it happen.’ And I said, ‘I’m not going to give you any money yet. I need you to sell it, I need to have it on paper as of Dec. 31, 2017, and I will make a promise you will get every dollar in the next three weeks,” Roy said.

Eight months later, WillowTree announced its plan to move from a series of spaces off Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall to the historic building in the county. In contrast to the sweltering August heat when the project was announced, officials gathered anew in Tuesday’s cold, dreary weather to mark the official start of construction of the complex.

“On this historic site almost five years ago, Brian Roy first laid out to me his vision for what he thought this Woolen Mills factory site could become,” Albemarle Supervisor Rick Randolph said from a space in the building that is slated to become a Grit Coffee location. “Little did he or I realize at the time that the significance of this bold, and certainly risky, revitalization and redevelopment plan for the site would take on either such import for the county’s overall economic development cause or that this project might well serve as the probable catalyst for the economic revitalization of all of Broadway [Street] leading right to the parking area of Woolen Mills.”

Woolen Mills, at the confluence of Moores Creek and the Rivanna River, will provide WillowTree the space to, at the least, double in size from its 200-person workforce. Along with the office and restaurant space, the work includes several parking spaces, a pedestrian bridge over Moores Creek that would fill a gap in the Rivanna Trail and a shuttle connecting the site to downtown.

Additionally, the county has funded and begun scoping work for an economic revitalization action plan for the 45-acre Broadway Street corridor, Deputy County Administrator Doug Walker said. The planning process for the industrial area off Carlton Avenue in the city is set to begin over the summer, Walker said.

“For decades, digital innovation and, quite frankly, capital have been reserved, dare I say concentrated, to three areas around the country: Silicon Valley, New York City and, to a certain extent, Boston. Last year, 75 percent of all venture capital in the United States was invested in those three towns,” said Mike Moore, WillowTree’s chief commercial officer. “I’m here to tell you that things are changing. They are changing because of the moves that we’re making together with you all.”

Moore said their work attracts resources and talented people, but it couldn’t be done without the benefits the region offers.

“It provides affordable housing, especially relative to the cities that I mentioned earlier,” he said. “They provide amazing schools, some of the best on the East Coast and in the state. They provide an excellent natural backdrop for people who work hard during the week and during the day to get out … into the outdoors.”

Moore said the area’s amenities, along with the Woolen Mills project, will set them apart.

“We know that this is much more than just a building,” he said. “Our business in this beautiful, historic building in this town in this commonwealth represents the new geography of innovation. And there is much more to come.”


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.