Sunday, March 30, 2008

A neighborhood's rebirth

For all the construction that's going on, the site is a tad inconspicuous to traffic on nearby Shenandoah Avenue.

Photos by KYLE GREEN The Roanoke Times

For all the construction that's going on, the site is a tad inconspicuous to traffic on nearby Shenandoah Avenue.

A new curb and sidewalk have been put in where Central Valley Rubber Services' new facility will be located.

A new curb and sidewalk have been put in where Central Valley Rubber Services' new facility will be located.

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Millions of dollars are being poured into the redevelopment of a Northwest Roanoke neighborhood home to industries that make noise, release smells and need a little elbow room to get the job done.

There, they haven't historically polished all the windows, planted flowers and set out picnic tables for employees who want to eat outside.

This is a place with outdoor storage yards with outdoor clocks; gravel, potholes and dust; engines growling and backup signals beeping. Work boots will get you farther than a pair of loafers.

Steel-mill slag processing, the harvesting of parts from junked cars, the storage of industrial barrels and cinder-block making were a few of the mainstay industries.

But most all business real estate can be judged by whether the owner is achieving maximum possible usage. And in the Baker Avenue area, many addresses needed a good cleaning and entrepreneurial energy to reap the opportunity waiting.

Now, the detoxification and revitalization of Baker Avenue are proceeding. And you may not believe the junk they've pulled out of there. Or the money being spent.

"It's changed for the better, trust me. This used to be a bad area, quite honestly," said Aaron Atwell, general manager of Central Valley Rubber Services Co.

What 'synergy' can do

The site is two miles west of downtown just south of Shenandoah Avenue, between the city's steel recycling plant and its main rail yard.

While no economic impact study has been commissioned, the cleanup, new structures and new infrastructure are signs of new economic energy flowing.

The initial returns already include a few new jobs: Atwell plans to boost his staff from 20 to close to 25 after the rubber company relocates to one of the new buildings next month.

Here is economic growth in the small-business sector, just the kind of progress that over time expands a regional economy for the better.

It is happening far from and without any connection to such prominent centers of business expansion, such as the Roanoke Centre for Industry and Technology and Carilion Clinic's business park, both recipients of large, upfront taxpayer investments. And no one has issued a single news release in spite of some dramatic results.

For example, 10 years ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had just finished clearing abandoned industrial drums and barrels from a field in the neighborhood.

Across the street was a vacant, industrial-zoned lot. On the street, vandals dumped junky furniture, clothing and miscellany time and again, all of which had to be hauled to the trash.

Today, a company manufactures hot asphalt on the old barrel field. The vacant lot has a $3 million building, with another new structure going up next door. And the street that collected trash bears a newly installed curb.

It has all the markings of a neighborhood experiencing what Brian Brown, economic development administrator with the city, called synergy.

That's the notion that two or more people or companies, working together, can accomplish more than any one of them is individually capable.

One investor can "spark" synergy by undertaking a project such as a building, remodeling or replacement, said Richmond economist Christine Chmura.

Someone else will jump in with their project and synergy begins.

On the other hand, "It may not happen in some areas because of lack of investment funds, crime or hazardous waste that would be too expensive to clean up," she said.

Brown said that in the case of Baker Avenue and surrounding addresses, the catalysts appear to have been the availability of accessible, lower-cost land to develop.

Development has taken off in a similar way on Franklin Road on and around the site of the Ukrop's shopping center known as Ivy Market and on South Jefferson Street, where Carilion is expanding, he said.

Creating interest

Who sparked Baker Avenue's revitalization?

Many credit recent investments by Tim Sarver with throttling the Baker Avenue revitalization.

Up the street, he's got a business, 25-year-old Sarver Hydraulics Inc., and invests in real estate development.

Sarver's biggest move was his 2004 purchase of land that included the cinder-block factory, defunct at the time after running for about 30 years.

With the purchase completed, he owned the centermost eight acres of the Baker Avenue opportunity. After some planning, Sarver put up a $3 million headquarters and warehouse for Southern Refrigeration Corp. on one end of the property.

Next door, Sarver is completing a $1.6 million facility for Central Valley Rubber, by adding offices and a warehouse to the former block plant. On an adjacent lot next door, soon to be vacated this year by Boxley Block, Sarver plans multiple business sites, details of which are still coming together.

"When we first started on Baker street, it was a s---hole. I mean grown up," said Sarver, 50, of Blue Ridge, who tools around in a heavy-duty pickup, rides motocross in his spare time and vacations with his wife in Mexico.

"Nobody was here except drug dealers and whores."

Sarver said he is motivated by the investment opportunities that well-designed real estate development deals offer. Others see drive and determination to improve the lot of area businesses.

They include Southern Refrigeration's executives, who are happy with their new facility and the expansion options that came with the deal.

"Tim's a very forward-looking guy. He's a hard worker. I've been over here on weekends and Sundays and here's Tim. He's doing this and doing that. He's one in a million," said Jack Lang, president of Southern Refrigeration.

Sarver has "rebuilt this area," added Gary Click, Southern's vice president. "He and Valley Bank can do anything."

Added Jim Bowman, a Roanoke business investor who lent Sarver money for business deals early on: "He was never a day late."

Sarver would be the first to point out the improvement of the Baker Avenue area has not been a one-man show.

"Development leads to development. Everybody seems like they're cleaning and painting and fixing everything up," Sarver said.

For instance, Joseph Lohkamp, who has land and a building on Baker Avenue -- owned through a limited liability company -- is tracking his investment options.

The company leases the building to Central Valley Rubber, but Central Valley is moving to the structure that Sarver is building. When that occurs, the company plans renovations and will return the building to use, Lohkamp said.

"A lot of people want to tear old structures down. I'm not one of them," Lohkamp said. "There's a lot of economic life yet."

Development growing nearby

But first, sometimes, it is necessary to take care of somebody else's unfinished business.

In January, a cleanup team removed 4,800 tires and various tire rims from a partially wooded, undeveloped area above Baker Avenue owned partly by private parties and partly by the city of Roanoke.

The tire hunters were surprised by one other discovery: A junked speed boat with a hole in it. It's been hauled away, too.

"This cleanup is a great example of what can happen when private business and the city of Roanoke cooperate toward a mutual goal of improvement of an area," said Lohkamp, who also acknowledged a role played by the state Department of Environmental Quality, which took away the tires.

Mutual is the operative word here.

On a ridge above Baker, a new firing range has been constructed for the Norfolk Southern Corp. Police Department.

On the other side of a ridge beside the railroad tracks, Steel Dynamics is expanding the infrastructure of its steel plant, formerly known as Roanoke Electric Steel. The project will expand scrap-handling capability and add new dust control equipment.

In part to accommodate trucks with heavy loads going to and from the site, 30th Street will be widened near its intersection with Baker Avenue. That's a big access improvement.

"Up to this point, it's just been a pig path," engineer Frank Caldwell said of the relevant stretch of 30th. He is an engineer with Caldwell White Associates in Roanoke who is providing design work.

And yet, for all that is going on, the site is a tad inconspicuous to traffic on nearby Shenandoah Avenue.

But it all becomes clear from the lofty parking lot of the Hilltop restaurant, located on a bluff overlooking the scene. To the south, earth movers and construction teams work.

Even the owner of the Hilltop has invested, adding on space to almost double the size of his eatery. During the past year, sales have risen 20 percent, owner Arindam Choudhury said.

On Baker Avenue, they're having a feast.

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