A strange shift for the “Center of the Universe,” as the village is sometimes called, to a retail hotspot and thriving business district.
Just a few years back, residents of the Hanover County town were fighting tooth and nail against an incoming Wal-Mart store, a brawl which ended up becoming the subject of a PBS special. Now, buoyed by Wal-Mart, Virginia Center Commons and new developments like Bass Pro Shops, Ashland and Hanover are seeing considerable growth. It represents a strange shift for the “Center of the Universe,” as the village is sometimes called, to a retail hotspot and thriving business district.
Welcome to Better Know a Village: Ashland, an in-depth look at Ashland’s retail awakening.
BizSense asked 20 shopkeepers, store owners and business people in Ashland one simple question: Has business picked up, slowed down, or remained steady over the past year? Half, or 50%, said that business has been better. Thirty-five percent said that sales and traffic has been about the same. And 15% said that things have gotten worse compared to this time last year.
“The area has grown substantially, even just over the past five years, and I think that’s going to continue,” said a manager at a national retail chain in Virginia Center Commons who did not want to be identified because of corporate restrictions. He credited larger stores like Wal-Mart and Ukrop’s, as well as Virginia Center Commons itself, as reasons for the growth.
And another manager at a different retail chain agreed with that assessment. “What you’re seeing with these major retail stores is a degree of stability that wasn’t there before.” He said that these stores generate huge amounts of traffic on their own, which then trickles down to other stores and establishments in the area.
There are 10 major shopping centers between the Randolph-Macon campus and Virginia Center Commons. VCC, which is actually in Henrico County, brings in a lot of traffic from the Ashland / Hanover area. We counted 200 storefronts in total within these shopping centers. Of these store fronts, 21 were vacant. That gives the town of Ashland a retail vacancy rate of 10% (not based upon square footage, but based upon storefronts)
Some shopping centers performed better than others. Ashcake Center, Virginia Center Marketplace, the Creeks at Virginia Center, and the shops of Virginia Center Commons had zero vacancies.
The Wal-Mart Supercenter, which was heavily criticized by Ashland residents when the retail giants first came knocking, has one vacancy for a rate of 8%. The Ashland Business Center also has only one vacancy, with a rate of 11%. The Ashland Hanover shopping center has four vacancies, also good for 11%. And the Ashland Junction has three vacancies, giving it a 14% vacancy rate.
Virginia Center Station and the Henry Clay shopping center both had vacancy rates above 20%. The Henry Clay shopping center, situated across from the R-MC campus, has a 22% vacancy rate thanks to four empty buildings. Virginia Center Station, located near VCC, has 8 empty buildings and a rate of 21%.
Many of these shopping centers get overflow traffic from Virginia Center Commons, the glue in the Hanover and Henrico retail sector.
Built in 1991, Virginia Center Commons has 12 empty storefronts, more than fellow Richmond malls Short Pump, Stony Point, Chesterfield Town Center, and Regency Square. That makes a vacancy rate of 14%, second only to Willow Lawn in the Richmond area. As BizSense reported last month, Short Pump has a vacancy rate of 3.8% and Stony Point has a rate of 7%.
But even though VCC trails Short Pump and Stony Point among customer destinations, it still generates a healthy buzz of traffic. The empty storefronts aren’t a noticeable distraction, and on a Tuesday afternoon the mall seemed busy. The interior is still in good shape, and it doesn’t resemble a dead zone like the Shops at Willow Lawn.
There’s also a good deal of traffic at the various shopping centers along Route 1 between VCC and Ashland. The four shopping centers that encircle VCC, with help from anchor stores Best Buy, Ukrop’s and Target, were particularly tough to navigate due to high numbers of shoppers.
With recent additions like the brand new Arby’s at Sliding Hill Road and the soon-to-be-finished Bass Pro Shop at Lake Ridge Parkway, Hanover seems to be making a concerted effort to turn its stretch of Route 1 into a retail destination.
Positioned right next to I-95, the county couldn’t have a better showcase for these new stores. Larger shops like Lowe’s and Gander Mountain can be seen right off of I-95.
The massive Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World is set to open Oct. 1in the Winding Brook development. Also in the works for the development are a group of outlet stores tentatively called The Outlet Shoppes at Richmond. And new shopping centers like the Wigwam Crossing (first reported by BizSense in our Pipeline feature) will be calling Hanover home in the coming months.
Hanover county Supervisor John E. Gordon Jr. thinks that the Winding Brook development will help spur enormous growth in the area. He told the Times-Dispatch that “In terms of destination retail, this, I think, is the project that will put Hanover on that particular map.”
Alec Depcrynksi covers retail and commercial real estate for BizSense. You can reach him at [email protected]