Living in a College Town: Just How Good We Have It

Living in a College Town: Just How Good We Have It

By Ken Wilson –

“If you close your eyes and say, ‘What would Charlottesville-Albemarle be like if UVA were somewhere else?’, muses Timothy Hulbert, President of the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce, “I don’t think anybody can tell you.”

He can say that again. The University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson’s dream, is now ranked second in the nation among public colleges and universities by U.S. News and World Report. Founded in 1819, Its 1,682-acre campus—pardon, “grounds”—is centered on the Academical Village handsomely designed by Jefferson himself. But its reach, its impact on Charlottesville alone, is incalculable.

A school that offers 48 different bachelor’s degrees, 94 master’s degrees, 55 doctoral degrees, along with professional degrees in law and medicine attracts a lot of smart kids and turns out a lot smarter adults, many of whom fall in love with its history and culture and gorgeous Shenandoah Valley setting and decide to stick around. Lucky us. Skilled and educated, creative and entrepreneurial, these UVA grads could make it anywhere they like, yet they choose to make it here. They are, to say the least, good company.

Take Lexington, Virginia native, Carrie Baker, who majored in Latin American studies at the University, and works there now in human resources. Baker recently purchased a two-story house on Market Street. “There are a good variety of things to do here,” she says, citing cultural opportunities like “speakers and the Virginia Film Festival—all the things that are sponsored by the University that give you opportunities to stay plugged into what’s going on.”

“I always have this tag, live where you love, and love where you live,” says Cynthia Viejo of Nest Realty. “I find this place to be a very powerful energy center that attracts all different kinds of people: artists, writers, and actors; health-conscious, community conscious, and Earth-conscious people. There is a really nice relationship in this town between all kinds of people, which is one of the reasons I’ve been here since 1979. UVA adds a wonderful flavor.”

Nest Realty agent, Janice Kavanaugh, frequently works with UVA alumni who left town after graduation, established successful careers in New York or other urban centers and are eager to return. “They jump ship,” she says, jumping at the chance to raise their families in a town with clean air and close proximity to the Blue Ridge Mountains, a great medical center, a diverse citizenry, and the plethora of sporting events and cultural riches that an outstanding university offers. “Some of those people could live anywhere with their jobs, and they choose to come back,” she says. “Their loyalty to UVA is large, and they just love Charlottesville. We have a fabulous quality of life.“

Take Farzad Farnoud and his wife Homa, both assistant professors in the school of engineering, who recently purchased a home in Crozet. Originally from Iran, since immigrating to America in 2008 they have lived in Illinois, New York and Los Angeles. So why Charlottesville? “The University and the city were big factors,” Farzad says, “and the nature”—even his commute down Ivy Road—“is really beautiful. We really like the Downtown Mall area, and the University has a great research program. The new exciting initiatives in the school of engineering were the main reason that attracted us to UVA and to Charlottesville.” As for the city itself, “it seems very community-driven”—and just plain friendly. “People have been very nice and helpful,” Homa adds, telling a story about a neighbor who offered lawn care tips.

Talented people like the Farnouds provide an enormous boost to the Charlottesville area economically. “The University of Virginia is our region’s leading economic engine and has been so for almost 200 years,” Hulbert notes. “Together UVA, the UVA Health System and other associated UVA organizations employ nearly 20,000 of our neighbors, friends and family, my wife included.”

Dollar-wise, a recent economic impact study found that the annual statewide impact of the University’s Academic Division, Health System and College at Wise totals $5.9 billion, with its research arms alone accounting for $644.5 million, supporting 10,845 jobs through direct, indirect and induced employment. Nearly $5 billion of this spending remains in the local Thomas Jefferson Planning District. Taken together, the University of Virginia and University of Virginia Health System are the largest employer in the Charlottesville area.

Statewide, UVA directly provides or indirectly supports 51,653 jobs—one in every 76 in the Commonwealth. A partial list of local employers  and the numbers of UVA alumni and students they employed in February 2016 illustrates the economic intertwining of town and gown: UVA Health System—342; Albemarle County Public Schools—142; University of Virginia Darden School of Business—90; James Madison University—89; City of Charlottesville—71; Merkle|RKG —70; SNL Financial—69; CFA Institute—52; Piedmont Virginia Community College—41; US Army—39; University of Virginia Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy—39; Martha Jefferson Hospital—39; PRA Health Sciences—37; Albemarle County—36; University of Virginia School of Law—36; VMDO Architects—34; Thomas Jefferson Foundation—30; WorldStrides—30; State Farm—29; Center for Open Science—27; Silverchair—22.

A 2007 study by UVA’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service found that every dollar spent by the University generated $1.45 in local spending. Much of that spending is forward-looking. This past January the Batten Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the Darden School offered a three-day boot camp for students interested in venture capital and entrepreneurship designed to teach them about early-stage investing. But according to the National Venture Capital Association, Charlottesville is already the fastest-growing area in the country for venture capital, generating seven new UVA-related startups in Fiscal Year 2015, and 53 since 2006. Venture funding investment in local companies rose from $250,000 to $27.7 million between 2010 and 2015.

A 2015 Brookings Institution report noted that Charlottesville’s annual rate of first-round venture capital financing is nearly two and a half times higher than the national average. Over $65 million in follow-on funding has been invested in UVA research projects that have strong potential for improved healthcare as well as commercial and industrial applications. And according to, UVA is one of the top 50 entrepreneurial schools in the country, for both its entrepreneurship centers and its top-ranked business schools. Its Licensing and Ventures Group (LVG) was recently recognized among six technology transfer “star performers.”

UVA’s numerous and widely varied economic development activities include entrepreneurial development and start-up creation, public and private partnerships, workforce and talent development, and infrastructure and funding. iLab Incubator supports student, faculty and community entrepreneurs in developing early-stage business ventures. LVG, located in the Coca-Cola Bottling Works with co-working space for University-based entrepreneurs, supports hundreds of invention disclosures, patent applications, commercial transactions and new company launches.

Twenty-nine percent of UVA alumni in a 2014 study by UVA’s Darden School of Business identified themselves as “entrepreneurial,” but the real numbers were even higher: 19 percent were founders,11 percent were early employees (one of a new company’s first five), 12 percent were board members, and 7 percent were investors. Sixteen percent of UVA alumni entrepreneurs had taken entrepreneurship classes and programs at the University. What’s more, the study found, business creation by UVA alumni over the long term is on an upward trajectory, with 2010 being the single highest year so far. Most impressively, as Darden reported, “the survival rate of UVA alumni ventures compares favorably to national averages.” “I think it’s Charlottesville’s most vital partner in the community we’re building,” says Mayor Mike Signer when asked what the University means to our quality of life. “They are our biggest employer; they’re the source of a lot of our history and culture and arts. Especially with the new provost, Tom Katsouleas, there’s a new focus on innovation and technology, which is very exciting.”

The newly approved Seed Fund, to be professionally managed and administered by LVG, will have $10 million, expendable in up to $1 million increments over ten years, and is expected to make two to four seed stage investments a year, funding critical experiments and UVA-affiliated new ventures. The state-of-the-art UVA Research Park has 23 tenants and more than 1,200 workers. Its sponsorship of the annual “4 the Wounded” 5k race has raised over $515,000 for military veterans, personnel, and their families since its inception in 2011.

“The powerful impact of UVA research is often overlooked,” Hulbert says.” UVA, its medical college, Health System and College at Wise are engaged with the National Institute of Health, the National Science Foundation, NASA, the Department of Defense, and others. They do plus or minus $300 million in federally funded research each year. Those activities directly and indirectly contribute to a wide range of jobs.”

But dollars and cents and jobs aren’t all that UVA’s research activities contribute. “We’re not just talking about jobs here,” Hulbert stresses, “but also the breakthroughs, like the artificial pancreas developed by doctors Stacey Anderson and Sue Brown [along with Dr. Bruce Buckingham of Stanford], which can benefit more than a million Americans with Type 1 diabetes.” Hulbert is speaking of the smartphone app developed by researchers at UVA’s Center for Diabetes Technology that functions as an artificial pancreas, regulating blood sugar levels in diabetes patients by delivering insulin.

He also has a personal reason to be impressed. In 2004 Hulbert was diagnosed with a Stage 4 cancer, “a pretty aggressive form of lymphoma. My doctor and his team at the University of Virginia discovered the chromosomal miscreant. Now that the discovery has been made, treatment for this rare form of lymphoma is incredibly successful. I went from having a five year deal that’s now been 13 years. That’s all been because of National Institute of Health research right here in River City.”

For the Farnoud’s part, they’re engaged in work that promises exciting future payoffs. With a background in information and coding theory and an active interest in machine learning and data analysis, Farzad is designing code for better flash memory, and analyzing biological data for use, for example, in identifying disease-causing genes. Homa, who has done award-winning work ensuring the safety and security of surgical robots, is researching the design of dependable cyber-physical systems.

Innovative and forward-thinking, UVA faculty, staff and students are also generous with their money and time, volunteering 111,135 hours in 2015 at schools, health clinics, food pantries, community centers and animal shelters, and making $18.9 million in charitable donations annually—$70.3 million including the dollar value of volunteer hours. “UVA leads all state agencies in employee giving through the Commonwealth of Virginia Campaign (CVC),” says University Deputy Spokesperson Matt Charles. “Since 1999 it has given a total of more than $13 million to the campaign, which supports more than 1,000 nonprofit organizations. UVA employees donated more than $1 million during the recent 2016 CVC campaign that benefits a number of area charities.”

“UVA,” as Hulbert puts it, “is an ever-present economic engine in innumerable ways. It is the engine that powers our community.”