Downtown Transformation Coming with SOVA Hub

Aerial View of SOVA Innovation HubThe SOVA Innovation Hub, future home of Mid-Atlantic Broadband and Microsoft TechSpark Virginia, is envisioned to become an even greater asset for South Boston’s future than what has already been announced.

As it now stands, the tech companies’ investment in downtown is one for the books.

“We’re thrilled about it,” said Betty Adams, executive director of the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center, located on the other end of downtown from where the $5 million Innovation Hub will be built. “It’s been under discussion for quite a while.”

The two-story, 15,000 square foot building will become the new home of Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communications Corporation, operator of the regional fiber optic backbone created decades ago by the Virginia Tobacco Commission, and Microsoft’s TechSpark Virginia initiative. The latter is a spinoff of Microsoft’s cloud computing campus in Boydton, and its presence downtown gives Halifax County a premium corporate nameplate to show off to the world.

“A lot of people may know about the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center, but we’re not Microsoft and never will be. That’s huge,” said Adams.

The hope is for the project to transform a section of downtown that has seen better times — especially in South Boston’s tobacco-era heyday — and bookend the success of revitalization around the SHVEC. The open plot on which the SOVA Innovation Hub will rise up is the former home of Planters Warehouse, destroyed by fire in 2002.

With the higher ed center, The Prizery and the SVHEC Innovation Center serving as one anchor, and the MBC-Microsoft office as another, “it’ll be a renaissance for downtown,” said Town Manager Tom Raab.

“The Microsoft name unto itself should lead to bigger and better things. We would be happy with just [Mid-Atlantic Broadband], but this is even better,” said Raab.

Raab credited Tad Deriso, CEO of MBC, with putting the wheels in motion to develop the new complex and bring Microsoft on board. “This was driven by MBC, by Tad and his crowd. They wanted to be downtown,” said Raab.

“[Tad] really wanted the partnership with Microsoft,” he added.

MBC will be bringing in its workforce of about 20 employees with construction of the new building, anticipated for completion in July 2020. The broadband provider will move its employees out of the county’s technology park on U.S. 58, although it will keep its network servers and other equipment stationed there. The Innovation Hub will be privately financed and constructed.

The TechSpark initiative, meantime is a one-man operation, led by TechSpark Virginia manager Jeremy Satterfield, a Halifax County native. TechSpark was created by Microsoft in 2017 to help rural and small-city communities adapt and grow in the digital age. The national civic initiative, based in areas where Microsoft does business, added Southside Virginia to its roster of 10 communities throughout the U.S. in March 2018.

Satterfield said Wednesday that Microsoft envisions the new building as a place to bring in non-profit groups, educational and health care entities, and entrepreneurs to collaborate on projects and help Southside surmount its economic and community challenges in a tech-driven age. While Microsoft has not made any new hiring plans in tandem with the new building, Satterfield said he won’t be the only person working downtown with a connection to the computing giant.

“Right now we’re looking at [the site] for training deployment, utilizing other partners in the region” to advance the company’s goal of supporting community development, Satterfield said. Microsoft has garnered commitments from eight regional partners to move into the building’s first floor office space.

While Satterfield declined to name the tenant organizations, he said they have signed letters of support or memorandums of agreement to locate offices at the SOVA Innovation Hub. And it’s not likely the list will remain at eight, he said.

“We foresee that number to grow as well,” he said.

As for how South Boston finds itself with its first new building going up in downtown in 40 years, Raab said it came down to a desire by MBC and its employees to enjoy access to amenities without having to drive in from the Southern Virginia Technology Park miles west of town.

“They really wanted to be somewhere where they can go out the door and walk up a block and get what they need,” said Raab, citing lunch hour as an example: “By the time you drive out and back [to a restaurant], a lot of that hour is gone.”

MBC, Microsoft and the other partners at the Innovation Hub are expected to act as a magnet to attract newcomers downtown, but South Boston has seen other downtown-centric projects materialize: three of the biggest are apartment complexes, in the Imperial Lofts, New Brick Exchange Apartments and Taylor Lofts, each repurposed from formerly abandoned buildings.

Raab said South Boston needs one more major downtown anchor, this one juxtaposed between the SOVA Innovation Hub and the SVHEC.

“The hotel [the Randolph Hotel project], it will come online soon — I hope, I have my fingers crossed,” said Raab.

Envisioned as a 27-room, boutique downtown inn with a restaurant and rooftop bar, The Randolph would help to fill a glaring need for more downtown amenities. Raab predicted The Randolph, if and when it is restored, will become the prime destination for those visiting the area with dollars to spend.

“Anybody who is coming in with Microsoft, or MBC or ABB, I think that hotel will be their first choice when they come to South Boston,” he said.

Adams added that existing businesses — particularly restaurants and shops, and the SVHEC and Prizery as well — should also receive a boost from the influx of people to the Innovation Hub. “It’s going to generate a lot of traffic for downtown and that means more people shopping downtown and eating, and I hope it will introduce a lot of people to the higher education center and The Prizery,” she said.

The SHVEC hopes to benefit from one other spin-off effect tied directly to Microsoft: the tech giant has pledged $200,000 to expand the SVHEC IT Academy, which trains local students for jobs in digital careers such as maintaining computer networks. The higher education center has an application pending with the Tobacco Commission for funding to carry out the project.

“We have a whole list of students who are on the waiting list” for entry into the IT Academy, said Adams, “and we have jobs that need to be filled.” Adams stressed that Microsoft is not offering to fund the IT Academy expansion solely to fill its own hiring needs in Boydton: “That’s part of it. But they also want to provide skilled workers for other IT jobs, in manufacturing, in health care, in small business … We’re seeing the digitization of everything.”

If the tobacco grant is approved, the SVHEC will build out unused upstairs space to roughly double the capacity of the IT Academy program. In the current year, Adams said, 71 people are enrolled.

Meanwhile, South Boston is working to maximize the impact of the Innovation Hub footprint on Wilborn Avenue and Johnson Street. Raab said the town is hoping to tear down the vacant building next to the project site, which has long sat empty and has fallen into a state of disrepair: “Go look at that building and you wouldn’t invest a dime [in it],” he said.

The original home of Crowell Motor Company, the building is for sale and MBC plans to buy it, said Raab. The Town of South Boston is applying for a state grant to pay for removing the building’s asbestos and take care of an underground fuel tank. Once MBC purchases the building from Haislip Dental Lab, the current owner, it will donate it to the South Boston Industrial Development Authority, with demolition to follow.

“We’ll have a nice property to do something there,” said Raab.

The future use of the property could be as a streetscape park, or MBC could expand its building there. Raab also suggested the town could seek to develop the space for shops, restaurants or other ventures: “We’ll fill it in as we go along.”

South Boston, he added, may want to launch another entrepreneurial effort, like the So Bo Startup! grant program in 2017, to build up offerings downtown for the SOVA Innovation Hub newcomers.

“I think what we’re finding is that today’s employees love to be able to walk and do things close by. That’s going to help a downtown like ours,” said Raab. “We’re not going to close our doors. We’re going to have them wide open and bring in as many people as we can.”