Last tobacco maker in Petersburg ends local operations

The city’s last remaining tobacco manufacturing company has closed its headquarters here, moving to the Richmond area and marking an end to Petersburg’s role in an industry that once employed more than two-thirds of the city’s workers.

Star Scientific Inc. recently moved its corporate headquarters and sales office from South Market Street to a new location in the Glen Allen area. Fewer than 30 employees were affected, and most have transferred to the new location, said Sara Troy Machir, Star’s vice president for communications and investor relations.

The company sold its office building and an adjacent former cigarette factory in November to Star Lofts LLC, an affiliate of Becca Group LLC, a Richmond development company that plans to convert the buildings into upscale loft apartments. Machir said Star had been leasing the property since then while it prepared to make way for the redevelopment.

Patrick Kane/Staff Photo Star Scientific Inc. recently moved its corporate headquarters to Glen Allen from Petersburg.

Patrick Kane/Staff Photo Star Scientific Inc. recently moved its corporate headquarters to Glen Allen from Petersburg.

Becca Group principal Michael Glass said the conversion, which was approved last year by City Council, remains on track. The company’s historical consultant currently is reviewing the architectural plans before submitting them to the Department of Historic Resources for approval, he said.

Star was incorporated in 1990 and formerly was known as Star Tobacco. The company specializes in curing tobacco using a process aimed at reducing substances called tobacco-specific nitrosamines, or TSNAs, that are thought to play a large role in tobacco’s cancer-causing properties. Originally, the company used the reduced-TSNA tobacco to make cigarettes, but in recent years it has focused on smokeless products.

For several years, the company has done its manufacturing at a leased factory in Chase City, about 75 miles southwest of Petersburg in Mecklenburg County.

Not surprisingly for a tobacco company, Star has been involved in some controversies. The company is embroiled in a long-running legal battle with industry giant Reynolds American Inc., formerly R.J. Reynolds, over patents relating to the reduced-TSNA curing process. And last month, the federal Food and Drug Administration asked Star and Reynolds to supply detailed information on the marketing and potential misuse by minors of their flavored smokeless products.

The building off Market Street where Star formerly made cigarettes was originally part of the Brown and Williamson factory complex. When that British-owned tobacco maker closed its Petersburg operations in the mid-1980s, it had been the city’s largest employer for decades, and its departure left economic scars that have not yet fully healed.

Star’s opening a couple of years later maintained the industry’s presence in Petersburg but at a much lower level of activity: The company’s manufacturing operation employed about 40 people here in the late 1990s before it shifted to Chase City.

That was a huge decline from tobacco’s boom times locally after the Civil War. An 1880 report on the industry in Virginia noted that 68 percent of Petersburg’s workers at the time were employed in tobacco manufacturing, when the industry accounted for 12 factories in the city.

A more detailed 1917 report issued by the Petersburg Chamber of Commerce listed the city’s biggest tobacco producers at the time: British-American Tobacco Co., the owner of Brown and Williamson; the Export Leaf Tobacco Co.; Maclin-Zimmer-McGill Tobacco Co.; and Seidenberg and Co.

In those years, the city was producing an annual average of 2.1 billion cigarettes, as well as 13.2 million cigars, 600,000 pounds of smoking tobacco and 5.5 million pounds of plug and twist (chewing) tobacco.

Altogether, the report estimated that Petersburg’s tobacco manufacturers, warehousers and dealers handled an average of about 50 million pounds of leaf tobacco annually in the years from 1914-16. The factories employed more than 3,000 people at the time, with an undetermined additional number of people working for tobacco warehouses and storage sheds.

Many of the former tobacco factories around town still stand but have been converted to other uses. For example, the Carriage House seniors residence on Old Street is the former Maclin-Zimmer-McGill factory, originally built around 1888 by local magnate David Dunlop.

Besides the Star site, two nearby former tobacco-related properties are awaiting conversion into loft apartments by separate developers: the former H.P. Harrison Co. building at 7-9 S. Market St., which later served for many years as the warehouse for furniture retailer Harlow-Hardy; and the main Brown and Williamson manufacturing center at Perry and Wythe streets.


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