Training grounds

Former tobacco factory may become teaching site for construction workers

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 10/6/2022, 6 p.m.
Along with a huge investment to transform the 67-acre Diamond District, the private development team that has been awarded the ...
Aerial view rendering of Diamond District development plan

Along with a huge investment to transform the 67-acre Diamond District, the private development team that has been awarded the project also is proposing to invest in a construction training center and in other projects that could benefit the Black community.

As part of its winning offer, RVA Diamond Partners (RVADP) has advanced a plan to convert a vacant tobacco factory at 2325 Maury St. into the training center.

Altria donated the 279,000-square-foot building to Richmond Public Schools five years ago, but the School Board’s hope of creating a career and technical high school to serve 1,000 students has not advanced.

“This new proposal could break the logjam,” said 4th District School Board member Jonathan Young, an advocate for the new high school that he envisions as replacing the aging Technical Center in North Side.

RVADP proposes to lease the building for $1 a year and invest a projected $52 million to renovate the building and add a parking deck, according to the plan obtained by the Free Press. RVADP plans to use state and federal tax credits and its own investment estimated at $34 million to handle the work, the plan states.

The plan, which RVADP emphasizes is preliminary and subject to change as the result of negotiations with RPS and the city, calls for shrinking the usable space in the building by almost one-third.

Of what remains, 175,000 square feet would go toward the development of a full-service construction training site, with the remaining 25,000 square set aside for new offices for RPS staff now based at City Hall.

Under the proposal, RPS would pay a fixed $3.8 million annually in rent and operational costs, with the option to pay off RVADP after 10 years at a pre-negotiated price and retake control. The projected cost does not include furniture, fixtures and equipment, RVADP noted.

RVADP would not run the training center, according to the plan, but would leave it to RPS and the city to determine the best operating entity. RPS currently spends about $5 million a year providing vocational instruction at the current Technical Center.

Michael A. “Mike” Hopkins, a Richmond developer and a member of the RVADP team, said that the plan “is a concept” and that nothing is fixed in place as yet.

Mr. Hopkins, whose companies would handle the renovation work, said the project could be done in phases. He said that there is room for the addition of traditional programs that have not yet been included, such as cosmetology and barbering, and for completely new programs, such as training in advanced manufacturing, robotics and computer construction and repair.

He said RVADP wants to have the construction training portion ready by 2025 for RPS students and for adults who now take evening training courses at the Technical Center.

The demand for construction workers is already high, he added, with the projected development of the Diamond District only anticipated to add to the existing need for workers. Along with the training center, RVADP promises a robust plan of inclusion in all phases of the project.

The partnership’s community benefits plan contemplates that 49 percent of all spending for construction and professional services will be with minority, small and women-owned businesses. That includes architecture, engineering, legal, accounting and banking, according to the community benefits plan.

One of the groups that RVADP is working with, Culture + Cuisine, would be in charge of creating a food hall and brewery that would be a minority business operation that also would include women-owned businesses.

RVADP also plans to work with Virginia Union University’s business school to create a training institute to assist entrepreneurs in developing businesses and also to provide $500,000 to launch a revolving loan program to aid such businesses to open operations in the district.

In addition, Capstone Development, another RVADP member, is to partner with Virginia Union University’s business and hospitality programs and integrate VUU students into every stage in the development and operation of a planned 180-room hotel, the plan noted.

Paid internships as well as part-time and summer jobs for students enrolled in Richmond-area technical schools and two- year colleges also will be provided, said the developer.

Sir James Thornhill, a notable Black Richmond artist and mural creator, also has been tasked with overseeing the creation of the artwork for the Diamond District.

RVADP also plans to team with the Metropolitan Junior Baseball League and the Richmond Flying Squirrels to provide a Diamond District baseball league for children ages 5 to 8 to play T-ball and coach-pitch games.