Partnership for Smarter Growth puts focus on eastern Henrico

State Route 5 in eastern Henrico County was turned into a main attraction Saturday afternoon by the Partnership for Smarter Growth.

The organization hosted the seventh River City Saunter to display tourist attractions, historic elements, natural resources and other economic assets to the region to county officials and residents.

The event also was a platform for development ideas and concepts such as walkable communities, conservation easements and stricter standards for residential and commercial development to retain the natural look of the corridor.

Stops on the three-hour tour for about 80 people included Deep Bottom Park, Malvern Hill and Fort Harrison, a Civil War battlefield of the National Park Service.

At Fort Harrison — one of the strongest Confederate defense lines in the Civil War — the earthworks on the 330-acre battlefield were clearly visible and nearby other significant sites.

David Ruth, the superintendent of the Richmond National Battlefield Park, said that because of limited staffing, the visitor center is open only in the summer. But, he said, there is about $11 million of economic impact related to battlefield tourism in the region — so there is a need to accommodate more visitation.

“It’s one of the most undiscovered national parks,” Ruth said. “I don’t think you can lessen the importance of what happened here.”

There are about 1,000 acres of county parkland with historical significance, said Neil Luther, director of Henrico Recreation and Parks.

“We want to put us on a level footing with everywhere else people think of when they think of Civil War sites,” Luther said.

Nathan Burrell, superintendent of the James River Park System, spoke at Deep Bottom Park on the importance of the river to the region’s economy. About 60 percent of the Richmond river’s visitors annually are not city residents, he said.

“We’re no longer in this downward spiral where people are leaving the city,” Burrell said. “They’re moving back.”

Conservation easements — land designated to not be developed — and farms were pointed out along the route, as well as the segment of the Virginia Capital Trail for cyclists and pedestrians being constructed in Henrico County.

Tim Liles, owner of the 1,700-acre farm at Malvern Hill where some 7,000 soldiers died in the 1862 battle, said he hopes to preserve the land.

“My vision is that this would be preserved in a way that would make my grandparents proud,” said Liles, drawing applause from the crowd.

Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, told attendees that civic engagement is a key.

“Preservation of your district doesn’t just happen by accident,” said Schwartz, adding that working with county officials is necessary.

Henrico planning and recreation and parks staff also were on the tour to answer questions. Varina Supervisor Tyrone E. Nelson and County Manager John A. Vithoulkas were also present.

“I wish we had more time,” Vithoulkas said at the end of the tour while thanking the sponsors. “You could spend all weekend out here.”

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