Over the past decade, Liberty University has emerged as a core thread in the fabric of Lynchburg, Va.’s infrastructure and economy. Liberty’s students and the school’s business operations pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the local economy each year, and with more than 6,500 employees, it is responsible for many Central Virginia workers having the buying power to keep other local businesses thriving.
In the past several years, Liberty has worked conscientiously to build a strong relationship with local governments and local businesses.
Chancellor Jerry Falwell, Jr. has taken an active role by meeting frequently with area leaders. He said he hopes this will spill over into an ongoing positive relationship between Liberty and local residents.
“We really want local residents to value Liberty as part of their community. We would like to see more of them become supporters of our athletics teams. We are trying to reach out to the community more.”
The city has already demonstrated its support of Liberty athletics in a big way this year. Along with the Lynchburg Regional Chamber of Commerce, city officials organized a pep rally downtown on March 15 to celebrate the men’s and women’s basketball teams’ conference championship wins and to wish them well in their trips to the NCAA Tournaments.
With Liberty as an ally, Lynchburg area communities are reaping benefits, such as improvements to major highways, more recreational facilities, and the additional cultural activities that come with the continuing development of a major four-
Local government has cooperated with Liberty to provide a much-needed pedestrian bridge over bustling Wards Road and improving traffic flow on the busiest corridor in the city. Because of cooperative efforts, traffic engineers were able to recently resynchronize traffic signals along Wards Road to keep automobile traffic flowing more efficiently. Liberty is in the process of building a vehicular tunnel from campus to Wards Road.
Local government has also responded by giving students their own on-campus voting precinct and by approving a zoning change that will ease governmental red tape and allow the university to continue to grow and prosper well into the future.
Falwell recently urged students to recognize these actions by writing thank-you emails to council members for their support.
Lynchburg Mayor Mike Gillette said cooperation between Liberty and surrounding communities has generally been strong.
“There has always been a good situation that is now becoming a great situation,” Gillette said. “If you look at any partnership, there might be moments of stress or items of disagreement. When you look at the numbers of issues that come before the city from Liberty and the way they’ve been handled, you will find that the vast majority of requests have been handled without fanfare. To the degree that we can make the relationship better, that is fantastic.”
Bryan David, executive director of the Region 2000 Economic Development Council, said the relationship between Liberty and local governments in the region is “an evolving one that is growing in parallel.”
“In the past several years, Liberty, in addition to achieving its mission as a university, has simultaneously become an engine of our region’s economy,” he said. “Because of that standing, Liberty has materially impacted all of our region’s local governments in a positive way. Higher education, in general, has a very positive influence on the region. Liberty is a very easy organization to work with.”
Campbell County Administrator David Laurrell is equally optimistic about the relationships between Liberty and the surrounding communities.
“Our working relationship with Liberty has always been great,” he said. “Liberty has a lot of really exciting things going on. The university is a great working partner with the community. I think Liberty’s presence has a positive economic impact on the area.”
With the growth of Liberty and other Lynchburg area colleges has come an emerging cultural, entertainment, and athletic environment that places the Lynchburg area among other elite college communities in Virginia. There are now 22,000 students on Central Virginia campuses; Liberty had 12,600 residential students enrolled this academic year.
Just a few years ago, Lynchburg’s population was in decline because of downsizing in the traditional manufacturing sector of the economy. With its growing college sector, Lynchburg is now a vibrant growing community that has become attractive to businesses seeking more skilled, educated employees, David said. It puts Lynchburg on par with Blacksburg and Charlottesville, which have long been recognized as college towns.
“All our colleges are growing,” said Lynchburg Council Member Joan Foster, former mayor. “It’s good to have all these college students. That’s a lot of young people in our community.”
Because of the influx of young people attending area colleges, Lynchburg’s median age is now 35 years old, she said.
“When I first got on the Council, we were an older community and we were losing population,” Foster said. “We are still getting retirees, but you are not seeing young people leaving. That’s a good mix. For me, personally, that is exciting. … When you’re growing and prospering that is what I want for my community always.”
A key indicator of Liberty University’s commitment to the betterment of the Lynchburg community is its offering of a $500,000 matching grant to assist with the restoration of Lynchburg’s historic Academy of Music Theatre.
The Academy of Fine Arts needs to raise about $16.6 million to begin restoration of the building, located on Main Street in downtown Lynchburg.
David Jenkins, executive director of the Academy of Fine Arts, said the $29 million restoration of the building is much more than an “arts” project.
“Don’t think of the Academy restoration as an arts project. Think of it as an economic development project — one that will bring visitors to downtown Lynchburg and keep them here long enough to patronize nearby restaurants, shops, and hotels,” Jenkins said recently at a downtown event announcing the kickoff of the fundraising campaign.
When it opened in 1905, the Academy of Music was the live entertainment hub of the city.
During its heyday, the theater boasted headliners such as Will Rodgers, Ethel Barrymore, Josephine Baker, Martha Graham, and Louise Brooks.
Live shows stopped in 1958 after the building was converted into a movie theater.
Beyond its financial contributions, Liberty’s Department of Theatre Arts could be a contributor to presentations at the revamped facility.
“That would be a positive experience for our theater students, to be able to perform in a historical theater,” Chancellor Jerry Falwell, Jr. said.
Liberty is contributing to the overall viability of the local aviation community, particularly in light of federal budget cuts, which have threatened key elements of the operations at Lynchburg Regional Airport.
Because of federal sequestration, the airport’s control tower operation was among those proposed to be cut.
“We met with the city the other day and talked about ways that Liberty could help keep the tower open, probably as a private tower,” Chancellor Jerry Falwell, Jr. said. “If federal funds are cut, Liberty is working with the city to find ways to keep it funded.”
In addition to possible funding, Liberty University School of Aeronautics offers some unique services on its airport campus.
“It not only offers charter services, but has a maintenance program, which is refurbishing older propeller-driven planes that will be put into service overseas,” Falwell said.
Liberty-trained aircraft mechanics are also in high demand. The aviation maintenance technician program has a 100 percent job placement rate for graduates.
Liberty University has become a key player in discussions about a civic center that would serve Lynchburg and surrounding counties. A feasibility study showed Liberty’s involvement in a publicly managed civic center would be essential to the project’s economic viability. Liberty would be a primary tenant of the civic center, which would provide the university with expanded seating capacity for its indoor athletic events and other university-sponsored functions.
Last year, Liberty purchased the former Sears building at River Ridge Mall and proposed that site as a possible location for the civic center as well as a conference center and hotel.
During the planning stage of the civic center, Liberty will use the former Sears building as temporary housing for some of its departments, which have been displaced by a massive facility makeover on Liberty’s main campus.
With the Sears building as a viable alternative, stakeholders in the civic center project have asked consultants Weston Sports and Entertainment to modify its completed feasibility study with the Sears site in mind.
Chancellor Falwell talked about the need for a regional civic center at a meeting of governmental officials and business leaders during the annual dinner of the Region 2000 Local Government Council, where he spoke about the improved relations.
“We hope this time it can be your facility and we can just be a tenant,” he said. “We look forward to growing together.”
Last year, Liberty purchased the site of the former Thomas Road Baptist Church for $4 million.
Since then, Liberty has moved its seminary operations to the property.
“We are thrilled that seminary students will now learn how to build ministries at the place where Liberty University was given birth. It seems fitting in so many ways,” Chancellor Jerry Falwell, Jr. said.
Major renovations are taking place, including restoring four areas once used as church sanctuaries to their original states.
“We found pictures and we are putting them back in the same condition they were in during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s,” Falwell said.
The revamped sanctuaries, including Pate Chapel and the former main sanctuary, will be available for weddings for Liberty students and others, he added.
“It is a beautiful old church. It just needed some work. It will be a beautiful wedding chapel that we think will be popular. There is a little bit of nostalgia going on there. We’re just preserving community history.”
The university is considering placing multiple athletic fields on Treasure and Daniel Islands in the James River near downtown Lynchburg. Liberty owns about 81 acres of flat land on the two islands.
Treasure Island was purchased in 1962 and was first used as a youth camp. Early classes of Liberty students lived on the island and it was also used as a practice field for the football team. A flood in 1985 destroyed the facilities and the bridge to the island.
The island fields could turn into a much-needed asset for the city and serve as a constructive companion to its downtown revitalization plan, Chancellor Jerry Falwell, Jr. said.
“It would be a way for Liberty to provide athletic fields that seem to be in short supply in the city. We want to give youth leagues a place to play and make it possible for traveling leagues to have tournaments in Lynchburg.”
Liberty students could use the islands for recreation, including a variety of water sports and intramural and Club Sports events, and could also meet the school’s community service requirements by working at the facility.
Falwell said additional fields could allow the city to tout itself as a point of destination for multi-team tournaments and provide a huge economic boost.
Lynchburg Mayor Mike Gillette said additional recreational fields are always needed.
“On the city side, we are always stressed for field space,” he said. “Playing fields are in high demand and they get a lot of use. There is always an opportunity for possible cooperation. Those types of cooperative agreements are wonderful.”