Some families are sticklers who wait until Christmas morning to open presents. Some, though, open theirs on Christmas Eve. Regardless of which category you fit into, Southwest and Southside can already count some early Christmas presents.
Here they are:
- Green Pastures. Back in the 1930s, when segregation was the order of the day, part of the national forest in Alleghany County was turned into a park that was the only formal outdoor recreational space for Black Virginians. Over the years, it was integrated, changed its name and ultimately fell into disrepair and disuse. Now the General lAssembly has appropriated money to fix it up. In September, Green Pastures reopened under its original name. Clifton Forge Mayor Pam Marshall declared: “We had part of our history restored today.”
- A new state forest in Charlotte County. The 5,004-acre Charlotte State Forest was dedicated in November. The land once was owned by Gov. Tom Stanley, who served in the 1950s, and the Stanley Land and Lumber Co. In 2019 it was sold to the Conservation Fund. Now it’s in state hands.
- More dark sky parks. These are places that meet criteria set by the International Dark-Sky Association for being dark enough to see certain stars. Think of this as a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for that economic niche known as astro-tourism which, yes, is a real thing. Virginia previously had two dark sky parks, both in Southside – Staunton River State Park in Halifax County and James River State Park in Buckingham County. This year it picked up Natural Bridge State Park, Rappahannock County Park and Sky Meadows in Fauquier County.
- A bus from Bristol to Washington. The Highlands Rhythm bus line opened service in November. This is the fourth line operated by Virginia Breeze Bus Lines. The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation tells us its most popular route has been the Valley Flyer along Interstate 81: “When the Valley Flyer launched in December 2017, DRPT anticipated about 7,000 riders a year. Before the pandemic, ridership was at 25,000 a year. If you were to swing by its stop in Blacksburg one morning, you would see lots of people ready to board.” Now Bristol is on board, along with Wytheville, Radford, Christiansburg, Salem, Harrisonburg and, ultimately, Dulles International Airport and Union Station in Washington.
- A passenger train to Christiansburg. The train’s not here yet, but the deal did get announced by which the Amtrak route to Roanoke will get extended to the New River Valley – and that a second train will be coming to the Roanoke route. For all the naysayers who thought the Roanoke route would never work, take that! (One of those naysayers was then-Del. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, who didn’t think a Roanoke route would make money. Turns out that it does, and is the only route in the state that does.) Next up: Getting that train extended to Bristol.
- Free tuition programs. We are in a new economic era where the economy usually demands more than a high school diploma, but the cost of post-high school education is beyond the reach of many. At least two institutions in our region made moves this year to correct that. Three years ago, Harvest Foundation in Martinsville launched a pilot program to pay for every local high school graduate to go to what is now Patrick & Henry Community College if they wanted to. That proved so successful that the foundation this year extended that program for 13 years – effectively promising every student in Martinsville and Henry County a chance to go to community college if they want to. This is a bold, generational bet to change the economic trajectory of the community. Meanwhile, Hollins University announced its own scholarship program for women who live within 40 miles of the school’s Roanoke County campus. The school said it would give preference to those whose household adjusted gross income is $50,000 or less. There are already programs at some community colleges – Virginia Western, New River, Dabney S. Lancaster among them – that also effectively provide a free tuition for qualifying students.
- Rural broadband. We realize not everyone was keen on the federal infrastructure bill – now law. All the Republican members of Congress from Virginia voted against the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. However, here’s one big reason this law makes the list: $65 billion for broadband. Thanks to that funding, Virginia now expects to have universal broadband by 2024, four years earlier than planned. Meanwhile, more than 600 students in Dickenson, Russell, Tazewell and Wise counties got online for the first time this year thanks to Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite internet system – and some state funding to pay for it. And there’s a pilot program underway that involves delivering broadband by having broadband companies partner with utilities to run fiber on utility lines. That project has been noteworthy enough to draw the attention of a company called Facebook. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. However, it happens, this is the equivalent of rural electrification in the 1930s. Rural broadband won’t be the salvation for rural Virginia but it at least gives rural Virginia the opportunity to compete in a way it hasn’t been able to before.
- Nearly 2,500 jobs coming to Wythe County. Southwest Virginia often spends so much time fretting that the economy is passing it by that when a big score happens, we have trouble comprehending it. How’s this for context: In October, a medical glove manufacturer announced it would build a plant in Wythe County that may eventually make up to 60 billion gloves per year. It’s the largest jobs announcement in Southwest Virginia in a generation, and the second largest manufacturing jobs announcement in Virginia since 1990, when the state started keeping records. We’ve had other job-related announcements that all count as early Christmas presents, too, but this is the headliner, for sure.
- The Jefferson Pools are being renovated. Except they’re not the Jefferson Pools anyway. The famous warm springs pools in Bath County have been closed since 2017 since the historic buildings were basically falling apart. In July, the Omni Homestead announced it had hired the Roanoke-based Lionberger Construction Co. to renovate the facilities – and would restore them to their original name, the Warm Springs Pools. Work is expected to be completed sometime in 2022. Later, The Homestead announced it’s getting a major upgrade as well – a $120 million makeover.
- A salmon farm in Southwest Virginia. A $300 million aquaculture venture that is projected to create more than 200 jobs is under construction on the Russell County-Tazewell County border. For a part of the state that’s trying to create a new economy, this is kind of a big deal.
- The Center for Manufacturing Advancement in Danville is under construction. The $25.5 million building is intended as a place to help companies train new workers, and solidify Danville’s growing reputation as a center for advanced manufacturing.
- Appalachian Power starts drawing from solar energy for the first time. Appalachian is one of the most coal-based utilities in the country – no surprise, given the territory it serves. However, in October, the utility added its first solar energy, from the Leatherwood Solar farm in Henry County. Why is this an early Christmas present? Well, it’s good for the environment for one thing. However, some companies are now insisting on renewable energy, so having a utility drawing from solar helps Southwest Virginia make a new economic development case.
So there you go – 12 early Christmas presents, one for each day of Christmas. And I’ve no doubt overlooked some that we’ll find unwrapped in the closet a few weeks from now. Not that I’m speaking from experience or anything …