( 4 Votes )

Bobby Popowicz Photo by Christina Dimeo GusemanSince he took the job of director of community planning and development 15 months ago, Bobby Popowicz has kept busy. Before him, there wasn’t an economic development program. In fact, Fluvanna didn’t have a development director for two years, and prior to that the position was only part-time. But now, with Popowicz at the helm, economic development is truly in the works.
Popowicz’s theory of economic development is clearly stated: “We want development that brings three things: jobs, revenue, and eventually, residual revenue and taxes.” So a big box store, for example, doesn’t really fit the bill. “We want to bring in well-paying jobs that keep people in our county or bring people in to work here from other counties,” he explained.
As the third piece of the puzzle, residual revenue and taxes play a big role. Once people start working in Fluvanna, they spend their money: on lunch, gas, groceries, and other things. Local businesses would benefit, yielding higher taxes to the county, which would also receive more via the 1% it gets back from the state sales tax. And, of course, if workers become residents, they would pay real estate and personal property taxes as well.
To Popowicz, successful projects revolve around an “anchor,” such as a technology firm, federal facility, or hospital. Take a geriatric hospital, for example. The lack of any such facility nearby leads Popowicz to believe that Fluvanna could thrive in meeting that need for regional seniors. The “anchor” in this case would be the hospital itself. But spreading out from that would come doctors’ offices, pharmacies, and other medical offshoots. All the professionals who come to work at the facility would spend their money in Fluvanna, and hopefully many would choose to buy some of the houses on the market.
Pointing to a model he’d like to emulate, Popowicz said, “Rockingham County has had a sustainable economic development program for 40 years. They have Coors, Perdue, Honeywell, Bantam Books…They’ve created these employment centers in their county. The average person drives 14 minutes to work. They weren’t as interested in doing retail but it grew up as they did these big projects.”
As a comparison, the average Fluvannian drives 30 minutes to work, with 16% of the population driving 35-60 minutes one way. “Fluvanna is a bedroom community,” Popowicz stated. “We need to reverse that trend.”
In the works
Although Popowicz can’t share specifics about many of the business courtships he’s currently engaged in, he described some in general terms. A light manufacturer, called Project Atlas by the state, is looking for a place to set up shop, and Popowicz has been actively working towards making Fluvanna that place. If Fluvanna is in fact chosen, the project would bring in 300 jobs.
Another company, also a light manufacturer, is in the works. This company would bring in 140 jobs as a 24-hour company with three work shifts. Light manufacturing, Popowicz explained, refers to “a smaller sized product with prefabricated parts that would be assembled at the facility.”
Providing a solid lead for this rural county is agricultural business. The wine business has a real need for grape growers and, as Popowicz explained it, there are plenty of people who don’t want to be in the wine-making business but would like to grow grapes. “We’re starting a push for that,” he said.
But there’s a catch. Grapes grown in a “viticultural area” have a certain cache. A viticultural area is a defined area with similar soil types, climate, elevation, and other properties. According to Popowicz, having a viticultural area written on a wine label is like a badge of honor. But in order for wine makers to have that honor, most of their grapes have to be grown in that viticultural area. Fluvanna is not currently included in the Monticello viticultural area, which means that most wine makers won’t want Fluvanna’s grapes.
“The two grape growers in our area are working really hard on trying to have those borders expanded,” Popowicz said, “so that any grapes grown here would be able to be used in those wines. Fluvanna is helping to support them. We have a retiring politician that has volunteered to help.” Clearing this hurdle would make possible a thriving trade for Fluvanna.
Tier system
In the world of economic development, there is a tier system for properties that ranks how ready they are for development. Tier one, as Popowicz put it, is “Farmer Brown’s field” covered in trees with no infrastructure whatsoever. On the other hand, tier five has commodities like water, sewer, and electricity ready to go on a parcel of cleared land. Any and all zoning, special use permits, and other such necessities are in place. The only thing left is for a company to come in and build its facility.
Needless to say, tier five properties are far more appealing to prospective businesses. Fluvanna falls short in this area, which leads businesses to select other localities to set up shop. So Popowicz is putting much of his effort into improving the tier of Fluvanna’s available properties.
While Fluvanna’s government doesn’t own any such properties, private sellers in the county do, so Popowicz is working closely with them. “Regional economic development folks are paying for one site per locality as part of a tier study,” he explained, “so we want to do one as close to a tier five as we can.” Popowicz is also working on fast-tracking the zoning process in specified areas in order to help that part of the process move along more quickly. “If all that’s done, then the project moves faster and the taxes start rolling in,” he explained.
Popowicz does everything he can to work with prospective businesses in the hopes of establishing them here in Fluvanna. “If prospective businesses need help, we’ll walk them through that: help them find their commodities, make introductions with clients…We feel it’s important that they get the help they need when they want to come to our county. If they are successful and continue to be successful, Fluvanna County becomes successful.”
A large part of economic development is networking. Popowicz goes to Richmond to the Virginia Economic Development Partnership once a quarter, meeting with several members of different departments. The goal is to keep his name and face, synonymous with Fluvanna, fresh in the minds of the ones doing the “front line work for the state.” Before, Popowicz explained, “Fluvanna wasn’t getting any unsolicited stuff from the state,” but now that “they know we’re here,” that has changed.
Summing it up, Popowicz stated, “Economic development is a couple things: It’s sales, of our county – we’re selling our county as an image – and it’s planning. We have to plan how we’re going to move forward. You can’t just bring something in; it doesn’t work that way. Everything’s a process, a progression. As long as we follow that progression we’ll eventually get where we need to be.”