An Amphitheater and a Sports Complex Spotlight Quality of Life as an Economic Development Goal

An Amphitheater and a Sports Complex Spotlight Quality of Life as an Economic Development Goal

An amphitheater and a sports complex spotlight quality of life as an economic development goal - Cardinal News 

On a recent warm evening in downtown Lynchburg, dozens of residents and area officials gathered to break ground on an amphitheater anticipated to seat up to 5,000.

Just over a hundred miles away in Pulaski County, county officials are preparing to develop a major sports and recreation complex in a former candle factory.

The two projects are among the region’s recent examples of economic development endeavors designed to add jobs not just by directly employing people but by improving their communities’ quality of life, with the goal of contributing to further growth down the road.

Such quality of life has a major influence on where people choose to put down roots, Lynchburg City Manager Wynter Benda told those gathered at the April 18 groundbreaking ceremony.

The amphitheater by the James River, he said, will be a “key outdoor space to serve recreational, cultural and environmental needs.”

“It will be a place for families to gather and play, for artistic talent to shine, to showcase our city as a destination for culture and entertainment. And beyond its intrinsic value, it also positions the city for greater economic growth,” Benda said.


Lynchburg aims to draw a crowd

Lynchburg’s amphitheater at Riverfront Park is designed to seat 3,500 to 5,000 people. It would host 15 to 20 events annually, potentially drawing 75,000 visitors each year, said city spokesperson Anna Bentson. 

“Large-scale special events, festivals and performances will drive visitor traffic and visitors mean consumer spending, economic investment in our businesses, in our hotels, in our restaurants,” Bentson said in an email.

The amphitheater is part of an $8 million package of improvements to the park that includes a new playground, permanent public restrooms and upgraded landscaping. Construction on the Riverfront Park improvements is anticipated to be completed in spring 2026.

Consumer spending on experiences such as events and festivals is the most efficient way to generate local tax revenue, Bentson said. Not only does it create direct spending from ticket sales but it also indirectly generates meals, sales and lodging revenues.

“That kind of return — generated by those coming into the city to spend money — helps to relieve pressure on our existing local tax base and residents,” she said.

Del. Wendell Walker, R-Lynchburg, said downtown Lynchburg has come a long way since he served on the city’s planning commission in the 1990s, when he said it seemed like “everybody had given up” on the area around the current location of Riverfront Park.

Like other cities, Lynchburg has been engaged in a yearslong downtown revitalization effort that has seen the addition of new restaurants and retailers — and now, the planned amphitheater.

“I’m looking forward to seeing thousands of young people and families out here,” Walker said. “This is going to be a major hot spot now for the future of Lynchburg as it continues the redevelopment of downtown.”


Pulaski sets sights on sports tourism

In Pulaski County, officials have plans to turn the 156,000-square-foot Korona Candles building in a Dublin industrial park into a recreational complex to serve local residents and capitalize on sports tourism.

“We think that the demand is there for indoor recreation space,” said Pulaski County Administrator Jonathan Sweet. “Put 20 or more pickleball courts in there and have pickleball competitions where folks from all over the Eastern Seaboard will come and take part in. Basketball, volleyball, you name it.”

The space will serve the county’s nearly 30 recreational clubs, which cover a variety of activities including line dancing, jujitsu and tumbling, Sweet said. It will also provide space for the county to offer more indoor activities such as futsal, a form of indoor soccer.

“It’s really first and foremost a facility for our youth and our young adults and our seniors because it’s going to house everything in one location. … It’s an asset that next-level rural communities have,” Sweet said.

Pulaski County is working with an architectural engineering firm to figure out a plan and a cost to revamp that space. Sweet said the county hopes to open within 18 months.

“We want this space operational, available in our community as quickly as we can,” he said.

In April, Shelor Motor Mile donated the Motor Mile Speedway, its 152-acre Pulaski County Motorsports Park campus, and the Calfee Park baseball stadium to the county.

With that donation comes the flexibility for the county to use the motorsports and ballparks for other purposes, and officials say they will explore a variety of sports and entertainment opportunities.

Such quality-of-life economic development projects are a part of Pulaski County’s plan to reverse its population decline and achieve “40 by 30” — having 40,000 residents by the year 2030. The county’s population currently stands at about 33,700, down from more than 35,000 in the year 2000.

An artist's rendering of an amphitheater in a mountain setting.


Attracting and retaining people

An area’s quality of life is becoming an increasingly important factor for businesses deciding where to locate, which in turn draws new residents and helps retain current ones.

It’s a marked change from days when a company simply moved to where raw materials were available, said Terry Clower, director of George Mason University’s Center for Regional Analysis and a professor of public policy at the university.

“Businesses now locate where workers want to live,” Clower said.

The GMU center produces research on economic and fiscal factors impacting the growth of Virginia, Maryland and the Washington, D.C., region.

Communities, Clower said, can use their amenities to market themselves to prospective companies and residents. As an example, he pointed to the Roanoke region’s various promotional efforts focused on outdoor activities. 

Clower said any locality considering a new quality-of-life project needs to consider a variety of factors: How will the facility be managed? What’s the market for it? How much competition exists? Is there viable demand?

Another factor to consider is whether a project is focused primarily on existing residents or whether plans exist to bring in residents from outside.

If a new place is geared mostly toward locals, then those residents may simply spend their money there instead of at a different local spot — what Clower calls “substitute spending.”

“But oftentimes,” Clower said, “these facilities are meant to attract people from outside the jurisdiction to come in. and so that becomes net new spending.”

As executive director of the Virginia Coalfields Economic Development Authority, Jonathan Belcher is tasked with leading an organization that promotes Southwest Virginia’s strengths, including its low cost of doing business, its available workforce and its various industrial parks.

VCEDA covers the counties of Lee, Wise, Scott, Buchanan, Russell, Tazewell and Dickenson and the city of Norton. Through a variety of funding programs, the authority has assisted large industrial parks, small restaurants and other businesses in between.

One of the programs is a seed capital fund that provides matching funds of up to $10,000 for new small businesses.

The program’s primary goal is to create jobs — “That’s always been the number one mission of VCEDA,” said Belcher — but along the way it’s helped grow a variety of businesses: coffee shops, fitness centers, restaurants and more.

“All of that has helped to build the, quote unquote, quality of life in the region and amenities,” he said.

Among the larger efforts underway to draw more people to the region is developing a 2,000-seat amphitheater at Southern Gap Outdoor Adventures, a campground and visitor center, in Buchanan County.

Despite a region’s best efforts, marketing can present challenges, something Belcher has seen firsthand.

Belcher said many people who have never visited Southwest Virginia have misperceptions about the level of education and infrastructure.

“We find that when people actually visit the area, they very quickly realize that the region has got a lot going for it, and the misperceptions invariably go away,” he said. 

But Belcher hopes amenities such as the Buchanan amphitheater, combined with the region’s scenic beauty, tourism and education assets, will lead to more growth in a variety of business sectors such as manufacturing, information technology, retail and restaurants.

“Things are headed in the right direction,” he said.

Making the case for new projects

Projects such as Lynchburg’s amphitheater and Pulaski County’s sports complex don’t always have unanimous support, for a variety of reasons.

That means local officials can find themselves in the position of selling the idea of a large project to some skeptical members of the public.

Peggy Malbouf, a production manager who started work at Korona Candles in 2020, said that she agrees that a recreational center would benefit Pulaski County, but said the candle plant is a poor location.

The building is on a dead-end road inside an industrial park where tractor-trailers frequently drive, she said.

“I have five grandchildren that live in Pulaski County and if you were to put a rec center there, I wouldn’t allow any of my grandchildren to come to that rec center,” Malbouf said.

Malbouf said that at one time, Korona Candles employed 260 workers across three shifts. In February, the factory’s owner, The Gala Group, announced it would close the plant, impacting about 60 employees.

Malbouf said she thinks the county should have put more effort into finding a new company to take over that space and equipment, preserving jobs there for her and the factory’s other employees.

In late March, a group of Korona Candles employees appeared before the Pulaski County Board of Supervisors to ask the board to consider leasing the county-owned factory building to another company.

“It doesn’t matter who we make candles for … we just want to make candles,” Malbouf told Cardinal News, later adding that she thinks “the county should be very open about new business coming to the county.”

Sweet said the county has had conversations with multiple entities about the Korona Candles space but, ultimately, none offered a deal that was good enough. 

Among other factors, the county spent more than $5 million to buy out the former tenant’s option to purchase the building, and any newcomer’s offer would have had to allow the county to recoup that cost.

Sweet said the proposed 30-acre site has benefits for a sports complex.

“It’s in an industrial park, but it’s in the center of the county. … It is a quarter-mile from the high school, a half a mile from the middle school,” Sweet said. “It is 200 yards from a child care facility. It’s proximal to our industry and commercial sector. It’s really close to Exit 98 off the interstate.”

The sports complex will create jobs both directly and indirectly, and not only will the facility itself employ people but it will lead to growth in related businesses, he said. 

“Restaurants are big employers. There’ll be a demand for that. Hotels are a big employer, there’ll be a demand for that. … Folks are looking to do other things in the community as well,” he said.

In Lynchburg, a December vote to appropriate money for the Riverfront Park improvements was opposed by two city council members, Martin Misjuns and Jeff Helgeson.

They supported some aspects of the overall plan but argued that the amphitheater’s anticipated revenue wouldn’t make up for the cost, and that the city’s money could be better spent elsewhere.

“Sure, it would be great to have that feature downtown,” Misjuns said at the council’s Dec. 12 meeting. “Businesses would love to have that downtown, right? But I cannot put that on the backs of our citizens.”

Nonetheless, the dissenting council members were outvoted by their five colleagues on the dais.

And at the recent groundbreaking in Lynchburg, the focus was on the amphitheater’s potential.

“We all know when you build a city where people want to live, you have a city where talent is drawn to work,” said Benda, the city manager. “If you build a city where people want to work, you will have a city where business thrives. And if you build a city where business thrives, you will build a city where people can’t wait to visit.”