The new SOVA Innovation Hub that is slated to open in downtown South Boston next year will feature a first-floor Microsoft visitor center with technology similar to what the tech giant deploys at its Redmond, Wash., headquarters.
Tad Deriso, CEO of Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities Corp., which is building the Innovation Hub, spoke to Halifax County supervisors at their monthly meeting on Tuesday about MBC’s plans for the building, and the involvement of Microsoft through its TechSpark initiative.
The first floor of the Innovation Hub will feature a Microsoft “experience center” with cutting-edge capabilities, from augmented reality to TV white space internet to tech tools that can enhance Southside Virginia’s agricultural industry, said Deriso.
“They want to make this a showcase,” said Deriso of Microsoft. “So if you go into Redmond, Wash., in their global headquarters — bigger than our building, obviously — and you see a lot of the new technology they’re rolling out, it’s really exciting, really inspiring to see what they’re doing in those types of facilities.
“And through our partnership with Microsoft, they’re going to be doing this right here in Halifax County.”
Deriso and Mark Varah, chief financial officer for MBC, appeared before supervisors to ask for a waiver on real estate and personal property taxes for the $5 million Innovation Hub. Because the county would have to amend MBC’s tax exemption ordinance, supervisors agreed to set a public hearing in October before they grant the request.
MBC was chartered in 2004 as a non-profit corporation to oversee the development and operation of southern Virginia’s 600-mile fiber optic backbone, established through funding by the Virginia Tobacco Commission. MBC, currently based at the county’s technology park on U.S. 58 west of South Boston, is constructing the Innovation Hub to serve as its new home.
The two-story, 15,000 square foot office complex — downtown’s first new building in more than four decades — will be located on Wilborn Avenue, taking up the grassy field that lies across from the fire support center and New Brick Exchange Apartments. The old Haislip dental lab building, the original home of Crowell Motor Company, will also be knocked down to free up space for the project.
Deriso said MBC decided to build the Innovation Hub because “we’ve outgrown our space” at the Southern Virginia Technology Park, but it was the prospect of being able to partner with Microsoft that raised MBC’s ambitions.
“The investment we’re putting in this is much larger than we need for our own operations,” he told supervisors. “We felt there was an opportunity to leverage Microsoft and what they’re doing with their TechSpark initiative.”
Microsoft TechSpark is the company’s effort to foster economic development in rural communities where it maintains data centers such as the Boydton cloud computing complex, a $3 billion investment that rivals the remaining tax base of Mecklenburg County, the data center’s home. Southside Virginia is one of six communities nationwide with TechSpark programs; the local director is Jeremy Satterfield, a county native.
Through TechSpark, Microsoft has set of goal of aiding the revitalization of rural communities through digital transformation initiatives, digital skills and computer science education. The Innovation Hub will be the regional center for carrying out that mission in southern and central Virginia.
Deriso said MBC approached Microsoft with that mission in mind when it pitched the idea of co-habitating in downtown South Boston.
“We felt there was a very small window to get Microsoft to work with us to really expand their digital skills partnership” in the region, he said.
A major point of emphasis of the Innovation Hub will be fostering digital skills in the classroom, among students and teachers alike.
“They’re going to be bringing digital skills and training for teachers for all the K-12 programs,” said Deriso. “Computer science is a big deal in education, and teachers will be able to come to the Innovation Hub [where] Microsoft will be facilitating and paying for programs, and we think it’s going to make a really big impact in increasing the digital skills and digital literacy of folks here in Halifax County.”
The Innovation Hub also will serve as a center for corporate and non-profit programs, including the Southern Virginia Technology Council, Virginia Advanced Study Strategies, and Institute for Advanced Learning and Research, along with the area’s community colleges. Another tenant will be CodeVA, a Richmond-based computer science education organization for K-12 students.
“We’re getting a lot of excitement from all of our regional partners,” said Deriso.
Varah, MBC’s CFO, estimated that MBC and Microsoft together have provided “close to a million dollars in direct support over the past few years” for education and technology, through programs such as the IT Academy at the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center and the high school Cometbots robotics team.
With the move to downtown, MBC expects to grow its current work force of about 20 employees by another 5-10 workers in the future, said Deriso.
The overall job impact, taking into account all Innovation Hub partners, will be much greater, he predicted.
“There could easily be 40 to 50 jobs come out of this project in the next three to five years,” said Deriso.
Along with its commitment to revitalize rural areas through TechSpark, Microsoft is also pursuing an approach for bringing internet access to the countryside by tapping the mostly-unused UHF analog TV frequency through its White Space initiative. While not suited for heavy Internet use, White Space connectivity is a way for rural students to connect to the Internet for homework and other educational purposes. Deriso said some 100 homes in Halifax County are connected to the internet through Microsoft’s White Space initiative.
Inside the Innovation Hub itself, there “will probably be some of the best wireless Internet that exists on the East Coast,” he said.
MBC and Microsoft plan to break ground on the Innovation Hub in October, with completion of the building expected by September 2020.
“That really changes the equation” for South Boston and surrounding region, Deriso added, “when we talk about a tech hub and the things that can attract.”
From The News and Record