Amherst County residents and business owners are invited to attend a Madison Heights Business Town Hall meeting at Monelison Middle School on Wednesday, Feb. 19.

The Amherst County Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Authority of Amherst County are holding the forum for business owners and residents to have a chance to have their questions addressed by a panel of county representatives. Sabrina Kennon, chamber president, said the meetings gives the business community and residents an opportunity to voice their thoughts and concerns.

“We are hoping this is a platform for a continuing dialogue, and a catalyst for change in the area,” Kennon said.

Kennon said a great deal of work and effort has gone into improving Amherst County’s business climate and many residents have answer the call to change a perception of business unfriendliness in the county, which officials have worked in the past few years to improve through a series of county initiatives.

Kennon said the chamber and EDA wants to hear directly from businesses in Madison Heights, gauge their thoughts and input and understand their preparations for the future.

“We have received a lot feedback from businesses that feel like no one is listening to them,” Katie Mayo, the chamber’s business operations manager, said.

Chamber officials said residents, businesses and local leaders have to work together to improve and advance the Madison Heights area, which is crucial to the county’s overall success.

“Madison Heights is the gateway to the county, and we need to ensure that area is a reflection of the county as a whole,” Kennon said.

The agenda for the 6 p.m. meeting also will include a presentation of a master plan for Madison Heights from County Administrator Dean Rodgers, a participant on the panel. The master plan was a top priority in the Amherst County Board of Supervisors’ September 2019 retreat work session at Sweet Briar College.

During the retreat, Supervisor David Pugh said he sees Madison Heights, particularly its southern portion near the Lynchburg border, as a “prime, prime spot” for future growth. He noted infrastructure already is there and county officials would like to find ways to attract more economic activity across the James River into Amherst County.

Rodgers has said county revenue is not keeping pace with expenses to run the county government and without more business growth a tax increase recommendation is likely to come forth in the county’s upcoming fiscal year 2020-21 budget. The county hasn’t raised the local real estate tax since 2016 and last year balanced the budget by switching insurance providers, which raised public opposition from some county employees and constitutional officers.

The Madison Heights Master Plan, which aims to guide and stimulate future development, is a priority in the county’s draft capital improvement plan. Capital projects are items that cost more than $50,000. The master plan proposes $200,000 in spending.

The area between the James River and Virginia 130 is the densest portion of Amherst County and future development should be planned with consideration given to developing vacant and underutilized parcels in Madison Heights, a project description in the draft capital plan states. The master plan should be developed between Virginia 130, the James River and the Route 29 Bypass, the description outline states.

Finding a future use for the Central Virginia Training Center in Madison Heights, one of the state’s largest mental health facilities with nearly 100 buildings sprawled across about 350 acres, also is a major priority. The center is set to close this summer after more than a century in operation and local officials are pushing for redevelopment.

“It is a very complex situation and the entire county has been and will be impacted,” Kennon said of CVTC’s closure.

Board of Supervisors Vice Chairwoman Jennifer Moore, who will participate in the panel, has high hopes for the master plan’s success.

“The Madison Heights Master Plan will encompass the current conditions of the area, create a new and shared vision for Madison Heights’ future, and produce well-defined recommendations and implementation strategies,” said Moore, who represents much of Madison Heights. “The master plan will be a blueprint for development decisions, setting expectations for the area, and will improve decision-making. It will provide a clear framework to help the community and leaders connect county goals, capital project requests, and proposals to the achievement of this common vision.”

Moore said as the plan is implemented she sees the developed area of Madison Heights as a gathering place for the community. “It will be a thriving center for families and businesses to grow and the heart of multi-generations, government services, entertainment, and recreational activities.”

Rodgers said while the plan would contain many elements and features, his hope is that the county develops a location that includes all the elements that would allow everyone to see Madison Heights as the community’s center.

In April 2019, supervisors formally backed economic incentives to enhance economic growth, including focusing on Madison Heights, existing small businesses, start-up businesses and business attractions. Madison Heights has roughly 11,300 residents, about 35% of the county’s population, and a median household income of $39,450, about $9,460 less than that of Amherst County as a whole, according to figures presented to supervisors last April.

Designating CVTC as a historic district, creating a community development authority, a county-created entity covering an area and that funds infrastructure and public services to facilitate new development; accelerating the creation of a master plan for the CVTC property post-closure and designating the U.S. 29 corridor as a local enterprise zone, which would be structured to give incentives to developers of business properties, are among options county officials have discussed for Madison Heights.

The beautification of the U.S. 29 corridor has been a focus area of the county and a committee of representatives in recent years, including installing banners promoting the county and trees to improve the overall appearance.

Victoria Hanson, executive director of the county's Economic Development Authority, said Madison Heights as the county's most populated area is within a designated growth corridor and has ample infrastructure to support redevelopment and growth. 

"Creating a vibrant community center and new housing options will create a sense of place for current Madison Heights residents and attract new residents," Hanson said. "Together, the Madison Heights master plan and the Central Virginia Training Center redevelopment plan have the potential to create economic development growth through new businesses, jobs, and tax revenue." 

Amherst County Public Schools Superintendent Rob Arnold also is participating in the town hall’s panel.

“Amherst County Public Schools understand that the economic growth and vitality of a community is heavily influenced by the strength of the school system,” Arnold said. “Therefore, we are working very hard to prepare our students to enter the workforce. One way we can better prepare our students is to provide work-based learning opportunities to them.”

School officials in Amherst want to give the students real-life, hands-on experiences in the workplace.

“To accomplish this objective, we need the businesses of Madison Heights to be willing to partner with ACPS and to take students on in an internship-like capacity,” Arnold said.

County leaders are working to attract families to the area, retain current ones and learn how to better serve the needs of those families, according to Kennon. Mayo said the chamber is working closely with Arnold, the county school system and area businesses in creating partnerships to help meet needs of the local workforce.

“Amherst is known for its loyal and strong workforce,” Kennon said.

Reach Justin Faulconer at (434) 385-5551.

Reach Justin Faulconer at (434) 385-5551.