Community Resiliency and Entrepreneurship: The Virginia PACE Authority shines as a Launchpad residential member

A Launchpad residential member, Virginia PACE Authority (VPA), was among the five winners of the 2020 RISE Coastal Community Resilience Challenges.

VPA will receive $250,000 in funding from RISE to further assist customers within Hampton Roads and the greater Williamsburg area in combating climate change-related sea-level rise and flooding.


VPA is a non-profit organization that fosters economic development through promoting and facilitating the growth of sustainable, clean energy projects in Virginia. VPA supplies Virginia cities with C-PACE program administration services.

C-PACE or Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy is an innovative financing tool that is free to local governments. PACE financing provides property owners with a new, long-term way to fund energy-efficient building upgrades that lower property operating costs and increase property value. Upfront, C-PACE arranges 100 percent of the financing for businesses and allows owners to repay their loans for up to 20 years. The subsequent annual energy savings is positioned to offset the repayments.

VPA is a C-PACE program administrator for Loudoun County, Fairfax County, and the City of Petersburg, and is pursuing expansion into the greater Williamsburg area with the help of grants, like the one from RISE, as well as guidance and mentorship from Launchpad.

VPA Executive Director Abby Johnson recounted the numerous categories of clean energy operations in which VPA offers funding.
“It provides 100 percent financing of a discrete part of your budget, either for a new construction project or an existing building, related to a wide variety of energy efficiency, renewable energy, water conservation, and now in Virginia, due in part to a group of us who wanted it added, resiliency and stormwater,” Johnson said.

RISE Award and Resiliency

As an administrator, VPA works collaboratively with all involved entities from commercial businesses and building owners to contractors and local governments. Community resilience, communication, and cooperation are essential to the successful planning and financing of clean energy improvements. The addition of resiliency to the C-PACE statute led VPA to seek the RISE funding.

“In Hampton Roads, particularly with the issues with sea-level rise and flooding, related to climate change, the RISE challenge really wanted to have something that focused on mitigating these issues and helping businesses adapt to these issues,” Johnson explains. “And so, we really felt that now is the time we’ve got resiliency added to our statute, we’re allowed to use it, and here’s a great way to help even some of the former grant RISE recipients, be able to fund the projects, they’re trying to do. So, we thought it was a great way to contribute to that, to the big problem in Hampton Roads.”

Maisie Sapnar ’20 is an intern for VPA. She described the multiple ways resiliency can be defined in relation to VPA’s mission and work.

“In terms of hazard mitigation, making sure the buildings are able to withstand more flooding and prevent those kinds of damages,” she said. “But also building up the resiliency of a community, to kind of look more ahead in terms of job creation, being able to withstand any sort of impact that the effects of climate change will have.”

VPA cultivates public-private partnerships within its serviced communities.

“It’s a public private partnership,” Sapnar said. “So, there’s a lot of different stakeholders that normally aren’t speaking to each other that come to the table, and form long lasting partnerships, because that is kind of what is necessary in order for C-PACE projects to get passed. So, the sense of community resiliency is really built there as well.”

VPA, Launchpad, and W&M

Sapnar’s involvement with VPA began during the fall of her senior year at William & Mary. The relationship between W&M students and VPA is just one of the superb outcomes of having local businesses as residential members of Launchpad Greater Williamsburg Business Incubator.

Launchpad’s partnership with the Alan B. Miller Entrepreneurship Center at the Raymond A. Mason School of Business has proven to be a key champion of meaningful connections between local leaders, budding businesses, and W&M students and faculty.

Executive Director of Launchpad and Associate Director of the Miller Center Rachel Frazier views VPA as an extremely promising business with great potential to thrive in the greater Williamsburg area.

“Virginia PACE Authority is the type of company that’s the perfect fit for Launchpad because they’re not only doing something that is going to positively impact the economy, they’re doing something that is going to have a positive impact on society,” she said. “And that fits really well with the new Launchpad partnership with William & Mary because William & Mary students are so in tune to things that benefit people.”

Frazier commented that VPA’s close proximity to campus in the Tribe Square entrepreneurship hub presents added growth opportunities for the emerging business within the Williamsburg area and W&M community. VPA’s presence at Tribe Square is not only across the street from campus, but also just a couple blocks away from the Greater Williamsburg Partnership office.

“We want to be able to connect the pipeline of next-generation employees to these companies who are looking to grow,” she said. “Virginia PACE Authority is perfectly positioned to rapidly grow over the next coming years. …Physically the location works because they’re trying to expand out to the peninsula. They’re trying to go deeper into the capital of the state. And I think it’s just the perfect fit for those reasons.”

A primary goal for Frazier is connecting Launchpad’s residential members with new clients to help them grow. The incubation program revolves around facilitating connections between entrepreneurs.

“We’ve got some synergistic relationships that happen, that really build out a network of people,” Frazier said. “A network of people who are like minded in that we apply entrepreneurial thinking to absolutely everything we do.”

Frazier illuminated the benefits that companies like VPA glean from incubating with Launchpad.

“The biggest benefits or the biggest values that startups are going to see really come from the people associated with Launchpad,” she said. “So, it’s going to be our mentors and our coaches.”

As a Launchpad residential member, growth opportunities for VPA reside in both the extensive Launchpad network as well as in the vast talent and potential of keen W&M students.

“It’s twofold. It’s the connection to the students. …It’s that connection to the employees that they can gear up who can come into their company as the culture grows and really fit well,” Frazier said. “But then it’s also a connection to the experts and the other entrepreneurs that can help bolster the incubating companies’ efforts as they scale.”

Regarding the Launchpad environment and the funding from RISE, Johnson commented that she is pleased with the cohesiveness of the entrepreneurial atmosphere in Williamsburg.

“It really seems very copacetic,” Johnson said. “I’m just very impressed with how everyone communicates and tries to make this not just about one place and William & Mary, but part of a much larger economy and environment for entrepreneurs.”

W&M's Entrepreneurial Commitment

Particularly through its championing of student and faculty connections to local businesses, W&M plays a central role in the Williamsburg community.

“William & Mary is of course a vital component of the community, and if William & Mary doesn’t succeed, the community doesn’t succeed,” Director of Economic Development and Business Innovation Julie Summs stated. “And if the community is faltering, it impacts William & Mary. The really nice thing about the economic development community in greater Williamsburg, but also Hampton Roads and beyond in the Commonwealth is that there is a lot of support out there.”

Summs serves on Launchpad’s Board of Directors and had an influential role in establishing the partnership with the Miller Center at Tribe Square. She explained the eagerness of the university and its community partners like Launchpad to uplift entrepreneurial initiatives within the ecosystem.

“The three localities are part of the Launchpad board and have been working side by side to help encourage the entrepreneurial ecosystem in this area,” Summs said. “They’ve joined with the peninsula and Hampton Roads southside to further the networks and the collaborations there. They are willing, ready, and enthusiastically waiting for companies to get through the first five chapters of what they are, so that they can help them thrive in the greater Williamsburg region.”

A primary goal of W&M’s partnership with Launchpad is to increase graduates’ and students’ access to companies and real field experience, Summs underscored.

VPA’s clean energy financing bridges individuals in the public and private sectors. Johnson detailed how due to the multifaceted nature of VPA’s work, interns come to VPA from a wide variety of areas of interest.

“We’ve seen in terms of applications over the last year or so, folks who are interested in finance, economics, public policy, marketing,” she said. “There’s a lot of things that you can do with our organization that addresses a broad range of interests, actually. So, we’re excited to have so many students that can access us and help each other.”

VPA's Future

VPA is currently seeking ways to spread information about their offered services throughout the greater Williamsburg area. They are a non-profit, so of course they accept donations Johnson exclaimed. However, according to her the best way to support VPA’s mission is to circulate their information to prospective clients and local officials.

“We actually are in the business of supporting the business community. The way they can support us is for us to help them in a way,” Johnson said.

VPA has built strong relationships with the local governments in the jurisdictions that they already manage. From these established contacts, VPA receives engaged help with outreach to property owners, contractors, and service providers who may be interested in installing energy efficiency, renewable energy, or stormwater measures.

“We just want to be there and available to help facilitate [new projects], to make it more feasible financially and to encourage also more clean energy measures if it is possible because we can help fund them,” Johnson said. “We see a lot of projects where there’s a wish list of things that folks would like to do, but they don’t have the money. And so, our program allows for those components to not be value engineered out of the project. So just connect with us. We have a website. Call us, we’re happy to explain it and educate whoever wants to learn about it.”

As for the future of VPA, Johnson stressed the importance of expanding efforts to help small businesses finance their sustainability upgrade goals.

Ultimately, the goal of C-PACE and VPA is for companies and organizations across the board to commit to deeper cuts in their energy usage to achieve carbon neutrality or even to produce more energy than is used, Johnson said. She added that this means presenting financing options to all types of businesses, large and small.

Johnson explained that it is challenging for smaller entities to receive needed funding for their projects because private lenders and investors often cannot visualize a viable payback opportunity. To mitigate this, Johnson envisions inaugurating a revolving loan that VPA would manage and use to fund small businesses’ clean energy expenditures.

“We think that’s the next step for really addressing and expanding our mission,” she said. “Is to have, if we can, that component that allows us to fund directly projects that otherwise are un-fundable.”