100-year-old agricultural research center in Virginia Beach could move
For more than a century, the Hampton Roads Agricultural Research and Extension Center has served those interested in growing crops.
Farmers from all over and sometimes beyond the region come to the 70-acre property on Diamond Springs Road in Virginia Beach to drop off seeds and plants for free testing. Local master gardeners help maintain public gardens on the grounds, and faculty and staff at the facility research topics such as invasive pests and fruit production.
But the center may have to move, and some worry what that would mean for the community.
The state gave Virginia Tech, which runs the facility, half a million dollars this year to study what it would take to move from its current location and relocate elsewhere in the city. Developers have long eyed the location, one of the few remaining large plots with development potential in the urban corridor. It is along the border with Norfolk and close to major transportation hubs, such as Norfolk International Airport, Interstate 64, and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel.
According to the city’s most recent property assessment, the portion of land owned by Virginia Beach – 58 acres out of a total of 70 – is worth about $5.1 million.
“It’s a very valuable property,” said Jeff Derr, weed science professor and director of the Hampton Roads center. “There have always been developers and other interested people who would like to develop the site.”
What surprised the center was the state-mandated relocation study.
Of the. Barry Knight (R-Virginia Beach) introduced it as a budget amendment, allocating $500,000 “to begin planning the relocation” of the extension center.
Virginia Tech has until mid-December to produce the study, for which it has hired an outside consultant.
The Hampton Roads Extension Center began as a vegetable cooperative in the early 20th century, when vegetables were a more common crop in the Southside, Derr said. It became part of the Virginia Tech network of 11 extension centers across the state in the 1980s.
In 1920, the cooperative had ceded the land to the state to serve as a research station focused on improving local agricultural production. They then leased it for 99 years; the agreement ended a few years ago.
Around this time, city officials met with Virginia Tech and center leaders about moving to rural southern Virginia Beach. Rumor has it that a large corporation wanted a warehouse in Diamond Springs.
City spokespersons did not respond to WHRO’s multiple requests for comment on this story.
Eventually, the extension center renewed its 99-year lease. That settled the issue until this year’s budget amendment, which Knight said followed economic development discussions over the years with city staff.
Derr said center staff and faculty liked the location because of the ease of access, but also the terrain itself.
“This is prime farmland,” he said. “Our soils here drain well. … It’s a good type of soil to grow crops to do the types of research we’re doing here.
This allows researchers to set up experiments on which grass variety performs best under certain conditions, for example, or how nurseries can control weeds.
There are also a host of old buildings and greenhouses on the site.
The Virginia Turfgrass Council, an industry association, works extensively with the extension center, executive director Tom Tracy said. He said he and others in the area wanted him to stay put.
This includes a nursery owner on the east coast who told Tracy he appreciated being able to drive right over the bridge-tunnel, drop off a sick plant, and have answers about it within days.
“What if someone said, ‘Norfolk Botanical Gardens – we can develop this land, it’s much more valuable,'” Tracy said. “I think for the industry and the master gardeners, it’s at that level. And I think people don’t understand what a gem, what a treasure we have.
Tracy added that he thinks the current location is important for greenery research and urban water management. It is surrounded by businesses and homes.
Of the. Knight said he hadn’t directly heard any concerns about a potential move and the feasibility study was just researching the option. He thinks it might be a good idea to move the agricultural center to a part of town with heavy agricultural activity, such as Pungo.
“Nothing is decided,” he said. “I don’t understand why anyone would object to looking at a study to see if you could locate it on land that’s worth much, much less.”