Eye on the Prize

Big dreams and bold moves are transforming Virginia Beach into a city of the future. 

If you’re headed to Virginia Beach and it’s been a while since you made the drive, you’re in for a surprise. 

Miles before its 17B exit off I-264 East, lit by shafts of emerald green light and topped by a spired pyramid, the Westin Town Center glows like a beacon against the dark coastal skyline. Standing 508 feet tall, the 38-story hotel and residence sits nine miles from the oceanfront. Dominating the horizon and dwarfing everything in sight, the hotel serves as the heart of the Town Center of Virginia Beach, a 25-acre 17-city-block development comprising more than 800,000 square feet of office space, 700,000-plus square feet of retail, two dozen restaurants and more than 800 residential units. Developed in 2000, Town Center was conceived as the solution to the city’s lack of a downtown proper. 

“Virginia Beach is going through a huge transition,” says 53-year-old Bob Dorr, the Westin’s general manager. Dorr, who also serves on the Virginia Beach Travel and Tourism Foundation’s board of directors, believes the hotel, which opened in 2008, should be viewed as a symbol for that change: “If you’re visiting Virginia Beach, it’s the place to be seen. For millennials and the new vanguard of affluent and influential residents, it’s the place to live. The Westin Town Center sets the tone for the new Virginia Beach.”

Though it may sound like marketing speak, Dorr is right: Virginia Beach is changing. And in a big way. “Most people don’t know we’re Virginia’s largest city,” says mayor William Sessoms, who was elected in 2008, referring to its more than 450,000 residents (according to the 2015 census) and its geographic footprint of 249 square-miles. “Our goal is to make people aware of that fact by transforming ourselves into the state’s most prestigious city.” 

How does a city most Virginians regard more as a military hub and vacation destination than as a model for progressive urban planning manage such ambitious transformation? It requires action, says Sessoms. Bold action. Case in point: “We needed a downtown, so we invested $83.8 million and built one,” he says referring to Town Center.

But the changes that lay ahead are bigger than Town Center. For Sessoms, Dorr and others, the shift they seek is epochal. 

“In 1988, the city underwent a major evolution which was arguably the largest and most important in its history, entailing, among other things, the overhaul of the oceanfront boardwalk,” says Brad Van Dommelen, 59, director of the Virginia Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau since 2016. “That project changed the nature and reputation of the city, and saw us through two decades of development. And I think now we’re on the cusp of another evolution, one that’s going to transform Virginia Beach into a city of national significance.”

Prestige. National significance. Spend time chatting with city administrators and you’ll notice a sort of obsession with these descriptors.

“Research shows millennials prefer cities, and that they choose where they live based on lifestyle considerations,” explains city manager Dave Hansen, 65. “It’s not like the baby boomers, who tended to stay home or relocate based on getting a job or marrying. This generation looks for a place with the amenities and the culture they want and, boom, they’re there … So looking at the future, if we’re going to be attractive to new talent, we’ve got to compete with San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Chicago, Austin—the list goes on.” 

According to Van Dommelen—who came to Virginia Beach after spending the bulk of his career in Michigan working to rebrand Detroit and Traverse City—the city’s beach-town mentality is a major advantage. “There’s a way of life here that’s extremely appealing to millennials and modern professionals,” he says. Seated at a table on the covered front-porch at Doc Taylor’s, a popular diner about a block away from the beach, and at ease in an angular slate-blue suit, Van Dommelen offers an anecdote: “When I first moved here I kept saying, ‘Why does everything take so long?’” he jokes. “People went about things at this leisurely pace, but were so friendly you couldn’t get mad at them … Since then I’ve relaxed and have come to view that culture as one of our best assets.”  

In a meeting at City Hall with Sessoms and Hansen, Van Dommelen’s observation appears spot-on. The mayor’s office, with its hardwood wainscoting, plush rugs, big mahogany desk, antique furnishings and life-size portraits is formal, executive—but the mayor himself strolls in shoeless, wearing socks. To be fair, what comes across as beachy insouciance is actually the result of a recent foot surgery (shoes are uncomfortable and cause painful swelling, Sessoms explains). But the punch line to the 62-year-old mayor’s otherwise genteel apology is telling: “Hell, people here wear flip-flops all the time—if I had my way they’d be official attire!”

But when it comes to advancing their vision for a nationally competitive city, Sessoms and company are all business. 

When asked for specific exempli gratia for the new Virginia Beach, with the exuberance of a man half his age, Sessoms launches into a dizzying presentation.

He begins with developer and longtime power-player Bruce Thompson’s $75 million renovation of the Cavalier Hotel, set to re-open this summer after nearly four years of construction. “He’s taking an iconic [1920s] property that was literally falling apart and transforming it into what’s going to be an internationally reputable 5-star hotel,” says Sessoms. 

Indeed, for Thompson, a Virginia Beach native, the project’s goal is to once and for all change what he has described as people’s misguided perception of Virginia Beach as some kind of “Redneck Riviera.” “I think people drastically underestimate this market,” says Thompson. “The majority of the businesses that are doing well are upscale and our hotels are no exception … [by all indicators] the Cavalier is set to once again become the ultimate East Coast destination for special events, corporate meetings and luxury travel.” 

The revamped property features 85 standard rooms and suites with décor nodding to famous guests, including Frank Sinatra, Benny Goodman, Elizabeth Taylor, Judy Garland and a number of U.S. presidents. It also includes a farm-to-table fine-dining restaurant, tavern, distillery and full-service spa. According to the city’s department of economic development, the new Cavalier will generate $41 million to $52 million in new taxes in the next 20 years, and is expected to create 200 year-round jobs and 330 seasonal jobs. And all of this, Thompson has said, will lead to a kind of race to the top, with many area businesses springing up, or upscaling to meet the demands of new, more affluent visitors. 

Then there is the plan for a new arena on 19th Street adjacent to the Virginia Beach Convention Center. The $210 million multipurpose facility would seat 18,000 and host indoor sporting events, major concerts and even rodeos. (Virginia Beach has frequently popped up as a potential destination for an NBA team and NCAA basketball conference tournaments.) In Van Dommelen’s opinion, it would be a boon for both the on- and off-season economies. “Right now, we’re not doing enough to market the city during the fall, winter and early spring months,” he says. “An arena will help us be more attractive during these traditional downtimes, and summertime programming will bring in folks who maybe wouldn’t come otherwise.” Developers at United States Management, an affiliate of the ESG Companies, are presently negotiating a financing package with the city that they hope will allow them to begin construction later this year.

Third on the mayor’s list of evidence of a new VB is the installation of ultra-high-speed transcontinental data cables running from Bilbao, Spain, and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to Virginia Beach.

Spearheaded by Telefonica, Microsoft and Facebook, the cable will connect to a landing station that is being built on 3.5 acres in the Corporate Landing Business Park (CLBP) off General Booth Boulevard. The Spain connection is expected to be completed around October 2017; the Brazilian link should follow in 2018. And in January, VB-headquartered Globalinx Data Center LLC paid $2 million for 10 acres of CLBP land where it will soon build a 138,000 square-foot carrier-neutral data center to service the cables. According to Microsoft Corps’ director of global network acquisition, Frank Rey, the cables will be the highest-capacity carriers in the Atlantic. “In Los Angeles and San Francisco, the installation of such international connectivity points has led to the establishment of booming tech industry hubs,” adds Sessoms. 

But there is an elephant in the room for Sessoms and company: a proposal to build a light rail system connecting Virginia Beach to Norfolk, Hampton Roads and perhaps Richmond, which remains a sore subject. A referendum for a 3.5-mile rail-line extension from Norfolk to TCVB was rejected in November 2016; 57 percent of 166,000 votes were cast against the measure. Clearly miffed, Hansen dismisses the result as a temporary setback: “If we want to attract new millennial talent and keep our homegrown talent here, we have to recognize the extent to which this generation values quality public transportation; like it or not, to be competitive, that’s something we’re going to have to invest in.” 

“We’re going to get it.” says Sessoms, undaunted by the defeat. “Research shows these things tend to go through at least three referendums before they pass, and we’re only on our second go-round.” 

The mayor’s vision includes fostering hybridized neighborhoods that serve as arts and culinary districts, as well as incubators for local tech startups and boutique businesses. He points to the success of the ViBe Creative District, which began in 2011 as a partnership between area artists, entrepreneurs, philanthropists and business-owners. 

Situated about a block east of the Convention Center and spanning from Virginia Beach Boulevard to 22nd Street—an area that includes the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art—the ViBe sits smack dab in the middle of the oceanfront resort area. 

“The district began as an attempt to restore a historical neighborhood that had fallen into drastic decline,” says Kate Pittman, who was named its first executive director in October 2016. 

Sitting at an artisan-crafted hardwood table over breakfast at the Commune, the city’s first farmer-owned farm-to-table restaurant, Pittman explains that while the corner lot now features a large community garden and a hip-looking building covered with murals painted by local artists—one of whom sits at the bar sipping coffee, dashing off emails in his pajamas—this is all a recent development. “This used to be a really seedy area that people went out of their way to avoid,” she says. “But whether it’s the Commune, or the Chesapeake Bay Distillery, or our 50-member co-working and business incubator space, 1701, as these businesses went in, we transformed entire street corners. And bit by bit, it added up.” 

Today, the ViBe comprises a diverse array of more than 50 businesses, including coffee shops, restaurants, a yoga studio, a gym, high-end jewelers, art galleries and more. There is also studio space for graphic designers, digital animators, filmmakers and other creatives. Pittman says the ViBe will continue to grow and transform (plans for building more green space and replacing old infrastructure with new buildings are in the works), and will one day become for Virginia Beach what Carytown is for Richmond, or Ghent for Norfolk: “We’re just getting started here.” 

As I stand on the sand with the waves crashing and the sunrise rinsing soft pink hues over the Atlantic, an adolescent humpback whale breaches the surf about 100 yards from shore. It’s the dead of winter and the beach and boardwalk are mostly abandoned. 

Meanwhile, out there across the vast ocean lies Bilbao, Spain, a city of nearly 350,000 people. Westward are San Francisco and a trans-Pacific data-cable stretching all the way to Japan. And here, in the brisk salty air, the big dreams of Sessoms, Thompson, Van Dommelen, Dorr, Hansen, Pittman and the various caucuses they represent are coming alive. Yes, it all seems to be converging—right … here. VisitVirginiaBeach.com 

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