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Tech, Creativity Keys to Area’s Future

Published on Charlottesville Tomorrow

A brewer, an educator, a computer programmer, a film festival director and a lawyer and politician painted a picture of an arts-infused, tech-driven city Monday when asked to envision Charlottesville in 2025. Speaking at the Future Forum, the opening event of the Tom Tom Founders Festival, local leaders spoke about the importance of attracting technology jobs, boosting arts and culture and preparing children for a rapidly changing workplace. The speakers highlighted the importance of creativity as a means to boost Charlottesville’s attractiveness to businesses through education and culture. “The purpose [of the festival] is to celebrate founding, and not put a limit on what that is,” said Paul Beyer, festival founder and director. “I think that is baked into the DNA of this city.” Michael Prichard, founder and chief technology officer of Charlottesville-based WillowTree Apps, put the importance of tech jobs in simple terms. “These are great-paying jobs, and what do those people do with that money? They spend it in the community,” he said. “It is really important for us as a community to embrace these kinds of jobs.” Prichard founded WillowTree in 2008 with an app that located parking garages. The company now employs more than 130 people and last year expanded to Durham, North Carolina. While shopping for a second home, WillowTree made a spreadsheet of potential localities, which included a pro and con list that compared the towns with Charlottesville. Attributes on the list included the number of universities, cost of living, development talent, business competition and “hipness.” A trend emerged, Prichard said. “Charlottesville is better,” he said. “We have a lot of potential to do a lot of big stuff.” Part of what keeps companies like WillowTree in Charlottesville, said Hunter Smith, president and head brewer of Champion Brewing Company, is the sense of culture engendered by industries such as brewing. “As our residents and businesses continue to support local beer … not only do we drive revenue, we create a magnet that allows us to keep our great employees,” Smith said. The challenge, Smith said, is finding places to operate a growing brewery. Champion, which has a brewery and tasting room on Sixth Street and an industrial brewing operation in Woolen Mills, struggled to find both spaces. The company, which Smith started with two other people in 2012, has grown from a tiny 500 barrel-a-year operation to a more than 10,000-barrel-a-year manufacturer. As technology becomes increasingly autonomous, said Albemarle County Schools Superintendent Pam Moran, engendering creativity will be the secret to placing students in jobs when they leave school. Addressing technology such as driverless tractor-trailers, a program run by Forbes magazine that uses an algorithm to produce news stories and a robot in Australia that can build the walls of a house in less than a week, Moran said school systems must prepare students now for jobs that do not yet exist. “I know that our children, our creatives, have to be people who will live in a world where blue-collar work, white-collar work, the nature of work is changing,” she said. Much of what Charlottesville will need to succeed over the next decade already exists, said Mayor Mike Signer. Signer, who is a corporate lawyer focusing on startups by trade, lauded the city’s ability to thoroughly hash out issues. “I think the debates that we are having, as painful and as challenging and as deep as they go, are the heart of our city,” he said. “We will not succeed, I think, by trying to become Boulder or Raleigh. We will succeed by … becoming more Charlottesville.” The Tom Tom Founders Festival runs through Sunday. A full schedule of events can be found at

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Listen to Charlottesville Tomorrow’s podcast from the Future Forum! Timeline for podcast 00:01:01 – Welcome by Festival founder and director Paul Beyer 00:12:00 – What do startups want? Michael Prichard, WillowTree Apps 00:24:30 – Culture creates jobs – Hunter Smith, Champion Brewing Company 00:34:18 – The potential for arts in Cville – Jody Kielbasa, Virginia Film Festival, UVa Provost for the Arts 00:46:16 – Mike Signer, Mayor, City of Charlottesville 00:56:14 – The value of creativity and innovation – Pam Moran, Superintendent, Albemarle County Public Schools 01:09:17 – The decade ahead for UVA – Pamela Norris, Assoc. Dean of Research and Graduate Programs, UVa School of Engineering 01:22:00 – Brendan Richardson, Vice President of Business Development, PsiKick


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