The Virginia Chamber of Commerce is in the process of developing its new strategic plan – Blueprint Virginia 2030 will be released in December, just in time to be handed to the next governor, who may or may not consider these recommendations to be marching orders.
Let’s give the chamber some help, shall we?
Here’s some unsolicited but very sound advice. As with many things of value, it comes in the form of questions.
- What will Virginia do to close the disparities between urban crescent and the rest of the state? It’s painfully clear that we have two different Virginias. The urban crescent boasts a booming economy that is driving population growth; Loudoun County has seen its population grow 35% over the past decade, for instance. And yet in most of Southwest and Southside, we see just the opposite – localities that are losing population, led by Buchanan County at -15.5%, Lee County at -13.3% and Wise County at -12.8%. Every locality west of Montgomery and Floyd lost population. So did every locality along the North Carolina border. So did many others.
Some population changes are demographic in nature – an aging population where deaths outnumber births. But according to the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia, the state has 18 counties where the main reason for population decline is that the number of people moving out exceeds the number of people moving in – and that net difference is still bigger than either the natural decrease or the natural increase. With just one exception – Essex County on the Middle Peninsula – all of these “exodus counties” are either in Southside (Amherst, Brunswick, Charlotte, Cumberland, Emporia, Greensville, Lunenburg, Southampton, Surry) or Southwest (Buchanan, Dickenson, Lee, Russell, Tazewell, all coal counties) or close by (Alleghany County). When this happens, there’s only one clear reason: The economies there are failing. So what’s the plan – be it from the chamber, or the state, or anyone – to fix that?
It’s not going to be easy. Jobs once went to where the natural resources were – mines and ports – which meant that they weren’t really mobile but workers had to be. Now it’s often the other way around. Jobs increasingly go to where the talent pool is and, if education is a factor (as it often is), our workforce often comes up short. In Falls Church, 78.1% of the adults 25 and over have a bachelor’s degree – at least. In most of Southwest and Southside, the figures are usually in the teens. And sometimes lower. In Dickenson County, only 9.3% of adults have a bachelor’s degree. In Greensville County, 7.5%. Amazon will not be locating its HQ2 there anytime soon.
Former Gov. Gerald Baliles, shortly before his death, called for a “Marshall Plan” to raise educational levels in Southwest and Southside Virginia. He’s now gone and we haven’t heard anyone advocate that since (although The Harvest Foundation’s recent announcement that it will pay for every student in Martinsville and Henry County to attend community college over the next 13 years is effectively a Marshall Plan for that community). In some economic development circles, there are quiet whispers that government should just let rural areas go – that they’re a bad investment and not worth the trouble. Does the chamber believe that? No one will say that in public, of course, but will the chamber advocate anything more than some boilerplate reference? We’d expect some standard reference to rural broadband and, goodness knows, rural Virginia needs broadband, but let’s face it: That alone won’t be enough.
Here’s one small thing the chamber could do that has proven too big for the General Assembly, no matter which party was in power: Will the chamber advocate for a constitutional amendment to end the state-sanctioned disparities between affluent, suburban schools and those in rural Virginia? We have both a Republican (state Sen. Bill Stanley of Franklin County) and a Democrat (Del. Chris Hurst of Montgomery County) who have introduced an amendment to do just that. Both measures have been throttled but there’s a bipartisan base to build from, no matter who the next governor is (or which party controls the next General Assembly).
- How can we build a new economy in coal country? All of rural Virginia needs a new economy but none more so than the coal counties – or what one speaker at a chamber-sponsored event in Roanoke in 2019 called “the former coalfields.” There are certainly efforts underway – the GO Virginia council for the region has approved funding for coal-related companies to get into energy storage, the InvestSWVA economic development group has taken the lead in promoting renewable energy research and data centers (which also require renewable energy). But the General Assembly hasn’t exactly been a helpful partner. The Democratic-controlled legislature voted to abolish coal tax credits yet offered nothing in return except a study. Never mind that the region’s main economic development authority got 20% of its funding from those credits. In their eagerness to do away with coal tax credits, the Democrats in the General Assembly effectively voted to cut the region’s economic development funding by 20%. To truly build a new economy in “the former coalfields” will require a more concerted effort and the state has shown little interest in that. Will the chamber?
The one exception: During his campaign, Ralph Northam proposed turning the University of Virginia’s College at Wise into a research university, with emphasis on renewable energy – on the very well-founded theory that would generate economic spin-offs. Northam’s follow-through fell victim to General Assembly politics, but we also notice there hasn’t exactly been a groundswell of support from the business community in Southwest Virginia. Why not? There’s not a single university in Appalachia with a major in renewable energy; this seems a perfect market niche that could be filled. Will the chamber endorse this?
- Can we make the energy transition work in our favor? We don’t need to belabor what’s happening to coal – and coal country. It’s fashionable for some to say that solar now employs more people than coal, and it’s true. The problem is that those jobs aren’t in the same place. The question then is how can we direct more of those renewables jobs to the places that need them most? We don’t have an easy free-market solution for that – nor an easy government-directed solution, either. Here’s what we do know, though: There are lots of abandoned coal mines in Southwest Virginia, “brownfields” that some have proposed could be turned into “brightfields” of renewable energy. What would it take to make that happen? Whatever it is, would the chamber endorse that? We see other regions trying to position themselves as renewable energy capitals. Last year, the mayors of eight cities in the Ohio Valley – from Pittsburgh to Louisville – joined together to advocate a plan to transition their economy from one based on fossil fuels to one based on renewable energy. Why aren’t we doing the same? Local governments from Lynchburg to Lee County could join together to reposition the region; could the chamber give that idea a push?
- How can we grow a bigger tech-driven economy in this part of Virginia? We’re not starting from zero. We have a core of tech companies in the Roanoke and New River valleys. Danville has drawn some companies pushed out of the expensive Research Triangle in North Carolina. We’ve seen the coalfields make a play for data centers. What can be done to accelerate that growth? We understand the chamber can’t play favorites, but we can: Is there a way to help some of these companies in Northern Virginia spin off operations to lower-cost Southwest and Southside? If those companies are going to spin off operations somewhere, best they be here and not some place out of state. Can the chamber – and the next governor – do anything about that?
There are four ideas. Who’s got more?