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Does Richmond Need Another Short Pump?  Or a Shire?

They say money doesn’t grow on trees. I disagree. I believe money grows on trees, and in fields and along rivers; you just have to know how to spot it, and how to harvest it. This approach to creating community wealth has proven successful all over the world, from Napa Valley to Tuscany. And right here, in Richmond’s backyard, grows one of the oldest, richest untapped money trees in the world.

I’m referring to the riverlands east of town, known as the New Market Corridor, in the Varina District of Henrico County. Back in 1684 they called it “the Shire.” By tapping into our region’s creative class – experts in branding and innovative design – we can nurture this landscape into an international tourism destination, to the profit of the region at large.

Think I’m overselling? Go see for yourself.

They call the James “the river where America began.” Along its banks, our nation’s first seeds were sown. Four hundred planting seasons later, 10 minutes from downtown, Varina’s fields still sprout spring corn. You can still wander forests where Powhatan hunted, and splash in creeks where Pocahontas once bathed.

The most famous names in America’s history left footprints here. John Smith rowed ashore in Varina. John Rolfe lived on Varina Farms, named for the breed of tobacco he grew. Benedict Arnold fought a Revolutionary War battle at Osborne Landing. Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Patrick Henry gazed across Varina farmland on their journeys between Williamsburg’s old capital, and Richmond’s new; traveling down New Market Road, America’s second oldest road, now often called Route 5.

Today, thanks to Richmond’s largely western expansion, these historic landscapes endure. With proper planning and marketing, they’re worth a fortune; not just for Varina landowners but for the region; not one time, but year after year.

Consider these facts:

• Tourism is Virginia’s second-largest industry, and growing. (No. 1? Still agriculture.)

• Tourists spent $20 billion in Virginia last year, supporting 207,000 jobs and providing $1.32 billion in state and local taxes, according to the Virginia Tourism Corporation.

• Every dollar spent on marketing Virginia tourism, reaps $5 in tax revenue. That’s a 5:1 return on our investment.

• The top three reasons tourists visit Virginia? Scenic drives, colonial history, Civil War history sites.

The combination of Varina’s largely unspoiled landscapes, A-list historic celebrities and events, and their proximity to our capital city make it hard to overestimate the added value it brings to our region’s tourism potential.

Here is the opportunity within our grasp: We can balance the West End’s residential and commercial density with an eastern farm district. We can draw families from across the region and around the world to bike our roads, fish our streams, paddle our river, watch our eagles, camp in our forests, attend harvest festivals on working farms, watch reenactments of Civil War battles, learn environmental science, ride horses, attend riverside weddings, or simply go for a Sunday drive.

Last September – the same month Outdoor Magazine named Richmond the Best River Town in America -- the Virginia Tourism Corp. named Route 5 among Virginia’s top scenic drives. And it’s the chosen route for the soon-to-be-completed Capital to Capital bicycle trail.

How many of the 1.7 million annual visitors to Colonial Williamsburg will make a day drip to explore Pocahontas’s playground? When they’re finished, they’ll head downtown for dinner. They’ll stay in hotels around the Richmond region. They’ll spend money here.

This opportunity is limitless. And fleeting.

Our official State Tourism Plan, completed in March 2013 by Pricewaterhouse Coopers, LLP, states, “There remains a general lack of understanding and acceptance of tourism as an economic development tool among local government leaders, businesses, and residents.”

Henrico County, for example, each year loses an average of 1,600 acres of tourism-attracting farms and forests to land-intensive development, according to the USDA. The most marketable parts of the county have been spared -- so far. But in 2012, Preservation Virginia named the New Market Corridor one of the state’s Most Endangered Historic Assets.

A recent proposal to widen New Market to a four-lane divided highway was successfully opposed by citizens’ groups (Virginia Bicycling Federation, Scenic Virginia, Historic Richmond Foundation, etc.), and elected officials (Sen. Donald McEachin, Del. Jennifer McClellan, Del. Delores McQuinn, etc.). But as the real estate market revives, developers are looking toward the “blank canvas” of Varina’s farmland.

Now is the time to work with those developers, as well as landowners, residents and businesses, on residential and commercial models that maximize Varina’s appeal. Done properly, development in the New Market Corridor – or The Shire – will improve aesthetics and increase tourism. Land values will rise. The tax base will increase. Schools will improve. Businesses will thrive.

And with this kind of development, lots of things won’t happen. The same landscape that draws tourists also supports our agriculture industry, including opportunities to profit from the local-food movement. Green space slows and filters storm water and buffers the Chesapeake Bay. Mature forests act as air filters, binding toxins and exhaling pure oxygen 24 hours a day; a critical service across river from Dominion’s coal-burning Hopewell power station. Simultaneously they provide habitat for owl, fox, wild turkey, and other native Virginia species.

In May of this year, Republican state Sen. John Watkins told guests at a workshop hosted by the Urban Land Institute of Richmond, “The challenge in the Richmond community is to stop and look at what we have.”

What we have in the east end is a 400-year-old money tree. Will our grandchildren have the same? Will they stand on the shore, in its shade and praise our long-term vision? Will they extol our fiscal responsibility? Will they credit us with the region’s rich brand?

This is the opportunity. This is our legacy. What possible excuse justifies allowing it to pass us by?

Nicole Anderson Ellis teaches critical thinking, critical writing and argumentation at Virginia Commonwealth University, and is a contributing writer to Virginia Business magazine. She also serves as an elected director on the Henricopolis Soil & Water Conservation District Board, and is a founding member of the New Market Corridor Coalition.