In what can best be described as an economic shot in the arm for South Boston and Halifax County, Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities (MBC) and Microsoft have announced a partnership to build the SOVA Innovation Hub in South Boston.
MBC will invest more than $5 million in the construction of the hub at the site once occupied by a former tobacco warehouse built in the 1900s and destroyed by a fire in 2002 located on the east side of Wilborn Avenue in South Boston.
Microsoft, through its TechSpark Initiative, will use the space to encourage innovation and spur economic opportunities in the region, utilizing the SOVA Innovation Hub as a base for its TechSpark efforts.
The TechSpark initiative focuses on five program areas: digital transformation, digital skills and computer science education, career pathways, rural broadband and support for nonprofits. Each region has a signature project designed to help accelerate a community’s transformation.
Microsoft plans to use the center as a convening space to leverage regional partnerships to offer programming, workshops and events that encourage entrepreneurism and expand digital skills and career pathways in the area.
Initials plans call for Mid-Atlantic Broadband to build a two-story, 15,000 square-foot brick and glass facility at the site once occupied by a former tobacco warehouse, according to Jeremy Satterfield, TechSpark manager for Virginia.
Mid-Atlantic Broadband will move from the Southern Virginia Technology Park to the new facility, as will Microsoft and TechSpark staff, Satterfield explained.
TechSpark and other organizations will be utilizing the facility for different opportunities, such as training and conferencing, he added.
“We’re working through some letters of support and MOUs before we formally announce those partners,” said Satterfield.
The hub is the first new building to be constructed in downtown South Boston in 40 years, according to Satterfield.
“Hopefully, it’s really going to serve as the focal point for innovation for different organizations and partnerships that MBC and Microsoft have put together the past two-plus years,” said Satterfield. “To be able to bring some of these offerings to southern Virginia is very exciting.”
TechSmart Southern Virginia is one of the larger TechSpark communities in sheer size, Satterfield noted, one that encompasses Halifax County, Mecklenburg County, Brunswick County, Charlotte County and Lunenburg County.
“It’s one of the largest in terms of area it covers but one of the smallest in terms of population,” Satterfield said.
One example of the career pathways program area offered through TechSpark is the Idea Academy at the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center, Satterfield pointed out.
An example of the rural broadband program offered through TechSpark is Microsoft Rural Air Band, with Virginia one of seven states selected in 2018 for the initiative, which provides broadband and energy services to undeserved areas.
Tad Deriso, president and CEO of Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities, said Friday negotiations are underway to purchase the property, and ground-breaking is expected to take place either in July or August.
With a staff increasing in size from about three or four to almost 20 employees, MBC was simply running out of space at the Southern Virginia Technology Park, according to Deriso.
“We wanted a building where we can be an anchor tenant and have something to grow from there,” said Deriso. “It will be a very nice addition to downtown, and it won’t look out of place.”
Deriso said the benefits of locating in downtown South Boston include the partnership with Microsoft and the higher education center.
“We’re excited to put this in downtown South Boston, where it’s got those links and synergies with the higher ed center,and the R&D center at Imperial Lofts,” explained Deriso. “We thought it would be great to be a part of that.”
Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities will finance construction and initially own the building, Deriso explained.
The building will be designed as a co-working space, with individual offices for people who need an office setup or can’t get the right internet service at home, with space for people to come in and lease on a short-term basis, according to Deriso.
It also will feature collaborative work areas, event and training space, high capacity wireless broadband access and technology showcase areas.
And one of its most important attributes of the location of the SOVA Innovation Hub in South Boston is it will act as a magnet for other businesses to locate there, Deriso added.
MBC already has aligned itself with a number of regional partners, including Southern Virginia Higher Education Center, Danville Community College, the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research, Southern Piedmont Technology Council, Virginia Advanced Studies Strategies, Southside Virginia Community College and the Small Business Development Center at Longwood University.
It took time and patience for all the pieces to come together to help make the hub a reality, according to Deriso.
“It’s going to be an incredible hub for making things happen in the region, and we’re so excited to be a part of it,” he concluded.