Power lines have been moved, legislation has been passed, land has been graded, and now, the Southern Virginia Mega Site at Berry Hill is just waiting to be claimed by one or more industrial users.
The vacant site in Pittsylvania County is jointly owned by the county and the City of Danville. It is the largest “mega site” in the state and one of the largest in the Southeast United States, at 3,528 acres.
There are no national qualifications or size requirements for mega sites. But they’re usually characterized by at least several hundred acres of land (developed by a private developer or government), proximity to existing utilities, and easy access to roads and railways.
Once the land is shovel-ready, it will start attracting big businesses or industry.
Mega sites are highly sought after because of their potential to bring massive employers to a region, which would create jobs, capital investment at the local level, and ultimately, growth for a community.
“Competing on a national and global scale for large economic development projects – and winning – is a sure sign of a community’s vitality,” wrote Courtney Dunbar and Corey Kingsland in Area Development, a magazine covering corporate site selection and relocation.
And with the dwindling number of mega sites in this area of the country, the Berry Hill site is receiving lots of attention from developers, said Matt Rowe, director of economic development for Pittsylvania County.
“The sites that have been more developed, further along in their process, they’ve been gobbled up,” Rowe said. “Every time a site is gobbled up, we just move up the ranks.”
The Berry Hill project is no stranger to competing against shovel-ready sites.
The site lost out on a $5.5 billion Hyundai electric vehicle battery plant in May, and a Mazda-Toyota joint-venture manufacturing plant in 2018. These operations went to Savannah, Georgia, and Hunsville, Alabama, respectively.
The Savannah site, which is about 3,000 acres, won by a narrow margin, partially because it was more developed.
The Berry Hill site has a 200-acre graded pad that can be expanded when needed, but environmental regulations prevent too much speculative grading.
The area that is graded, however, has now obtained Tier 5 certification from the Virginia Economic Development partnership, the highest designation given to shovel ready sites.
The Hyundai and Mazda-Toyota losses ignited a competitive spirit in Pittsylvania and Danville, Rowe said. Back in 2018, it was uncertain whether Virginia could be competitive in this realm, but coming close to landing two big projects proved that it can.
“The site was not ready in 2018,” Rowe said. “We didn’t have power, the water was still being put in, we hadn’t really fully graded the property. It was very premature. But because of that, a lot of funding came rolling in.”
In the beginning, most of the funding was local. Now, it’s a mixture of private and public funding from sources such as the Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission and the state government, Rowe said.
Del. Danny Marshall, R-Danville, who serves as the Danville commissioner for the Tobacco Commission, said the organization has invested over $30 million in the Berry Hill site.
The Tobacco Commission invests in economic development projects across Southwest and Southside Virginia. The impetus for the Berry Hill site came as the commission was investing in industrial parks in this area.
“The idea was trying to get middle-sized companies, with 100 to 150 employees,” Marshall said. “We were somewhat successful with that, but we decided we needed a game-changer.”
The commission decided to aim higher, Marshall said, because Virginia was not competitive in attracting large corporations. This led to the Berry Hill project, and the large tract of land was cobbled together from other properties that the city and county acquired.
Despite this investment from the Tobacco Commission, Virginia underspends on mega site development compared to nearby states, and is now trying to play catch up.
Georgia has been spending around $66 million a year on mega site preparation, and North Carolina has been spending about $80 million. South Carolina spends about $50 million and Ohio spends about $43 million annually.
Meanwhile, the Commonwealth has only been spending around $5 million a year on site prep.
And Virginia also fell short when it came to landing job announcements that required lots of land, because it didn’t have any sites available.
Between 2015 and 2021, there were 105 projects announced in the Southeast that required 250 acres or more. These were mostly companies locating somewhere for the first time, rather than expansions of existing companies.
North Carolina got 12 of these 105 projects. Virginia got none.
The VEDP says that lack of prepared sites has cost the state 52,000 jobs since 2016.
Jason El Koubi, president and CEO of the VEDP, discussed this in a presentation during a meeting of the Virginia Association of Counties in Roanoke Thursday.
“We’re seeing a lot of these big opportunities,” he said, referencing projects with 1,000 or more jobs. “It really increases the importance of having mega sites.”
To address these shortcomings, the newly approved budget in Virginia calls for $109 million over two years, which could be increased to $159 million if revenues allow.
The Berry Hill site, which has been competitive despite these limitations, is unique not just because of its size, but because of its many utilities. The site has gas, water, sewer, electric, broadband and proximity to roads and railways.
The city and county worked with Marshall to pass legislation that allowed speculative construction of substations and transmission lines.
By the numbers:
The Southern Virginia Mega Site at Berry Hill in numbers:
- Total acreage: 3,258 acres
- Graded acreage: 200-acre existing graded pad
- Acreage of largest contiguous parcel: 2,102 acres
- Amount of money invested: over $200 million
- $150 million in the Berry Hill mega site
- $68 million in the advanced manufacturing precision machining educational pipeline
- Ultimate water capacity: over 5.75 million gallons per day, expandable to 7 million gallons per day
- Water sources: 2 independent sources
- Sewer system: 3 million gallons per day
- Total megawattage capabilities: over 300 kilovolts
“It’s a robust site and all of the due diligence has been done to ensure that it’s ready,” said Linda Green, executive director for the Southern Virginia Regional Alliance.
The alliance is a liaison between the state and its southern localities, specifically on economic development projects. Green has been involved in the mega site project since its infancy.
On top of the utility amenities, there are some other projects in the pipeline that will make the site attractive to developers.
Rowe said there is already funding to build an access road, and eventually, another road will be widened from two to four lanes to accommodate employee traffic.
“Some of these companies, they’re talking 12,000 employees,” Rowe said, though the average is 5,000 to 7,000. And with that many people working, plus over 100 semi-trucks coming and going everyday, “things could get really boggled up” on a two-lane road, he said.
Road construction is scheduled to begin in 2026, but if a project is confirmed before that, this process will be expedited.
And as employees drive into their campus, they’ll be driving right by the Southern Virginia Solar Park, a 100 megawatt solar operation that borders the mega site. This is also a selling point to green-focused companies, Rowe said.
Rowe said he’s hoping to see the site, which was purchased in 2008, claimed within the next few years. The mega site’s progress has been about a decade in the making, he said, and it’s now mature enough to attract a major project.
“We’ve been selective,” he said. “I know some people are asking why we haven’t put anything in yet. If the goal was just to put a $300-million project and 200 or 300 jobs in here, we could do it. We could’ve done that probably four or five times.”
But once the space is gone, it’s gone.
“Now that things are where they need to be, let’s at least hold out for four or five years and see what things come our way,” Rowe said.
Selectivity also ensures that the operation that comes to the area will complement the region. Pittsylvania and Danville want something that fits in, Green said.
“It could be a perfect alignment of a really strong manufacturing legacy tied to that new tech revolution where some of these industries are going in the future,” she said. “There’s a huge opportunity for it to attract and hire technical skill engineers and jobs that increase the wage base, but also complement the quality of life that the city and county are working so hard to bring into the region.”
And this could be impactful enough to transform the area for generations to come, Green said, especially by creating higher-wage jobs and opportunities for people to remain in the area.
“We have a lot of out-commuters and a lot of underemployed people because of the migration of some of our key industries,” she said. “This will enable us to keep those workers here…and it gives the kids in our workforce pipeline the perspective that they can live and work here in the future.”
Rowe said that he and Corrie Bobe, economic development director for the City of Danville, have been staying very busy meeting with company officials to give tours of the site.
Before conducting a tour, Rowe said they make sure the grass is cut and trash is picked up.
“We’re having so many visits lately, I think we’re just going to put someone under contract to do that,” he said.
The best way to see the mega site is by helicopter, Rowe said, adding that downtown Greensboro is visible from the air. He likes to point this out to developers to showcase the proximity of Danville to larger areas like Greensboro.
They used to land on a portable helicopter pad that had to be set up and taken down, Rowe said, but the frequency of tours increased so much that a permanent helicopter pad was added to the site.
Working with the mega site is about 50% of Rowe’s job these days, he said.
“It’s been a nonstop fire since September 2021,” he said. “Whichever company wants to pull the trigger, let’s go.”
Rowe said he thinks residents of Danille and Pittsylvania would be “amazed” if they knew the names of the companies that have come to tour the mega site.
And it’s possible that the previous projects that the Berry Hill site has lost out on will pale in comparison to what it eventually lands, Rowe said.
“We may very potentially be the biggest winner out of everybody, just because of how the timing of all this has played out,” he said. “There are some massive players that are now just getting into the market.”
The county and city teams are “batting way above our average,” competing against sites in larger areas with more hands on deck – and giving them good competition, Rowe said.
“We’re sitting right there, looking at the finish line,” he said. “You can only be a bridesmaid so much before you get the ring on your finger.”