To His Excellency, the Honorable Governor Glenn Youngkin:
You’ll like this column because it doesn’t deal with mask mandates or vaccine mandates or your school tipline or any of the other things that are causing a ruckus in some quarters. There are so many people weighing in on those, from across the political spectrum, there’s no reason for me to jump in. No need to thank me.
I see where you spoke last week to the Virginia Rural Caucus. You pointed out that even though you haven’t been in an office a month yet, you’ve already been out this way twice – once to Roanoke, once to Abingdon. “Why? Because it’s important for rural Virginia to know that their governor is delivering on what government needs to do to help,” you said, according to The Roanoke Times. We appreciate that attention and I’m glad to see that, at both stops, you talked up the importance of getting vaccinated. I’m not sure you’ve gotten enough credit for coming to a part of the state where vaccinations rates are low and support for you is high to make that case — so let me give that credit now. Even those who disagree with you on mask mandates should appreciate you talking up vaccines in a low-vaccinated part of the state.
However – surely you suspected this “however” was coming – let’s talk about the part about “delivering on what government needs to do to help.” I’ll confess I haven’t seen much of that yet from your administration. It’s early, of course, so this isn’t a flogging. On the contrary, I’m here to offer some help. Yes, yes, I realize a journalist offering you help sounds a lot like “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.” We’ll just have to laugh and look past that. Our interests here, though, do intersect. I’m here to advocate for Southwest and Southside. You’re politically indebted to Southwest and Southside. Our interests overlap.
Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears was at the same event. The Roanoke Times quoted her saying “We’ve heard you during the campaign that you are forgotten in Southwest. Our ticket is not going to forget you.” So here are 10 ways that your administration can make sure that Southwest – and the rest of rural Virginia – isn’t forgotten:
- Endorse state funding for school construction and modernization. If you only did one thing for rural Virginia, this should be it. You’ve talked a lot about schools but you’ve been strangely silent on school construction. Nobody in rural Virginia was worked up about critical race theory until it became a big deal in Loudoun County, but the lack of state funding for school construction has been an issue for decades. Here’s the problem: Many of the school-related things you’ve pushed so far are pretty irrelevant to us. Take charter schools, for instance. Some want to have a philosophical debate over those. My objection is more practical: You want 20 of them. That’s 1.8 per congressional district – not even two. Even if each congressional district got two, the vast distances involved in this part of the state would put those two out of reach for most students. It’s about 234 miles – and four hours – from one end of the 9th District to another. Charter schools might be something in metros but they just don’t mean much out here. You want to be a serious governor? Then let’s get serious about school construction. That could be legacy-making stuff. We still talk about how Gov. John Battle pushed state funding for school construction in the 1950s and that wasn’t even his idea! You have lots of options on the table. Del. David Reid, D-Loudoun County, has proposed $6 billion, which sounds like a lot of money and is, but is barely a quarter of the estimated $25 billion backlog. You want some bipartisanship? You could endorse that. It’s close to the $4 billion bond issue that state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, has pushed for years, so don’t get distracted by the “D” behind Reid’s name. There are lots of school construction vehicles around – the cannabis bill is another option. Pick one. Get behind it. You talk about wanting Virginia to compete better with other states. How well are we able to compete if we have schools – mostly in rural areas – that are literally falling apart? And yes, I do mean, literally. Check out the photo accompanying this piece.
- If the state is really going to get involved in helping the Washington Commanders build a football stadium, make sure rural Virginia gets a big cut of the revenue. I’m still surprised a Republican would even suggest a role for the state government here, but you have. There are lots of stadiums and arena where cities help pay for them but far fewer examples where a state government plays such an active role as what’s being envisioned here. You come from the business world so you also ought to appreciate what the free market tells us: Much of Virginia falls outside the market of the Washington football team, no matter what its name is. Northern Virginia might be proud to have the team play there; Southwest and Southside a lot less so. But let’s move on: Surely you don’t want Virginia to have a state-of-the-art football stadium while the schools attended by the sons and daughters of your strongest supporters are falling apart? You’ve used your bully pulpit to advocate for state involvement in such a stadium. How about using it to advocate that Southwest and Southside get some of the revenue? That would be another way to help fund school construction – just saying.
- Endorse funding for some potentially transformative economic development projects. This is a budget year so there are lots of them on the table. Some of the budget amendments that legislators have filed would be truly transformative for this part of the state. I compiled a helpful list in an earlier column but here’s a recap of some of them. State Sen. Steve Newman, R-Bedford County, wants $20 million wipe out the state’s debt on the old Central Virginia Training Center as a precursor to having that declared surplus property and put on the market. This is a massive piece of property in a prime location. Depending on how that property gets developed, it could really change the economic picture in the Lynchburg area. Many of the legislators who represent the Roanoke and New River valleys – Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt County; state Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke; state Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County; state Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell County – have proposed $15.7 million for life sciences labs to accelerate the growth of our nascent biotech sector. Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, and state Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County, have proposed $14.2 million to help create better child care options in the coal counties, because a recent report found that the lack of day care is a major impediment to economic development. These are generational investments that could change the course of the local economy. You’re a business guy, so I’m sure you get all this. Backing these should be natural.
- Endorse satellite internet for the coal counties. We know you’re in favor of this because you said so during the campaign. You told Fox News: “The idea of spending billions of taxpayer dollars to dig trenches is a 20-year-old solution when in fact the private sector is figuring out how to deliver low-earth satellite technology today.” You talked then about how North Carolina was experimenting with such things. Of course, Virginia was, too – there’s been a pilot program in Southwest Virginia to connect students via Elon Musk’s Starlink system. There’s now a budget amendment – from state Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William County – to appropriate $14 million to expand that program. The reality is there are large parts of Southwest Virginia that will never be reached by conventional fiber. Here’s a way to get around that. I would say put your money where your mouth is, but that sounds harsher than I want it to. Instead, I’ll say this: A Democrat has presented you with an opportunity to carry out a campaign promise. That’s an opportunity not to be passed up.
- Endorse more funding for the Tobacco Commission’s Talent Attraction Program. One of the big challenges in rural Virginia is demographic – not enough people with college degrees to drive a modern economy and not enough young adults to reverse populations that are aging and declining. The Tobacco Commission’s Talent Attraction Program is designed to address that – it pays off the student loans for college graduates willing to move to former tobacco counties and take jobs in certain hard-to-fill positions. (You can read our story about the program here.) This checks off both economic and demographic boxes at the same time. The commission so far has spent $4 million on this; McPike has promised to add $14 million more. This isn’t soundbite material but it does help make a big structural difference in the economy and the population. You’re said to like numbers; there are lots of numbers around demographics. Here are some that are important. If you want even more numbers, I suggest you read demographer Hamilton Lombard’s grim analysis of rural Virginia. You might even be inclined to up the ante after that.
- Make sure the cannabis bill helps direct some of that business to rural Virginia. I know you’re not much in favor of legalized marijuana, but that battle’s been fought. The question now is how the retail market for the devil’s lettuce gets set up. Democrats had set up some provisions that would give preference in licensing to certain groups of people – such as those who had been previously convicted of marijuana offenses. Republicans aren’t keen on that. Y’all can fight that out. I’m more interested in this: Del. Danny Marshall, R-Danville, introduced a bill that would have given a preference to those living in places deemed “economically distressed,” which is a legalistic way of saying much of rural Virginia. Now, maybe you’re a pure free-market guy and think the market alone should determine where cannabis businesses go – I’m talking here about the back operations of growing and processing, not the selling. The free market, though, hasn’t been too kind to rural Virginia or rural America in general. We could use a little help here, even at the risk of it being called government regulation. Virginia is about to create a brand new retail market, one that involves an agricultural product. The odds are that, for reasons of both security and biology, much of the weed crop will get grown indoors, which means it could be grown anywhere. We’ve seen in other states that means a lot of greenhouses in metro areas, close to the marketplace. We live in strange times: Here’s a crop but it might get grown in cities. Let’s do what we can to make sure that as many of those operations as possible are actually in rural areas. For Democrats who want social equity, there sure seems a lot of social equity in helping out rural Virginia.
- Use the bully pulpit to persuade data centers to locate in Southwest and Southside. Prince William County is in the midst of a big controversy now over whether the county will allow data centers – the big warehouses of computers that make the internet go – to be built in a (relatively) rural part of the county. In parts of Southwest and Southside, though, there are localities that would love to have data centers, both for the tax revenue they’d generate and the high-paid jobs they’d bring in. Here’s another place where the free market has failed rural communities. Data center companies like Northern Virginia because that’s where the talent pool is; they’re willing to pay the higher taxes and higher land prices to have access to those workers. Here’s where some gubernatorial leadership could come in. Get some of those data center companies together and jawbone with them about why they should look at Southwest and Southside. It sounds like a lot of people in Prince William County would love that; I know a lot of localities in Southwest and Southside sure would.
- Come up with a plan to clean up waste coal. There are piles of the stuff – toxic stuff – all over the coal counties. Nobody even knows how much – the official count is “at least 245 piles” – but everybody knows these waste piles are environmental hazards. They leach into streams. They take up land that could be used for something else. The Appalachian School of Law recently produced a study on what could be done about waste coal. Among its intriguing observations: There’s lots of federal money available to clean up these waste piles, and that cleanup could generate a lot of jobs in a part of the state where jobs are hard to come by. This seems both easy and important, and those two things don’t often get said in the same sentence.
- Secure funding for a significant research and development center in the coalfields. When Ralph Northam was running for governor, he proposed establishing graduate programs at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise to focus on renewable energy. The theory: Universities are economic engines, research universities more so. Why not a research university focused on renewable energy in a part of the country suffering the consequences of the transition to renewables? That never happened but it’s still a good idea. We do have a Southwest Virginia Energy Research and Development Authority that is eyeing a Southwest Virginia Energy Research Park. Let’s put some serious money behind that. That’s no reason why the Oak Ridge of renewable energy couldn’t be in Southwest Virginia.
- Endorse flood relief for Hurley. The community in Buchanan County was ravaged by a flood last year and has been rejected – twice – by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. People are still living in temporary housing. If Hurley were in, oh, let’s say Fairfax County, we all know this wouldn’t be happening. Del. Will Morefield, R-Tazewell County, has proposed $11 million in relief for Hurley. Even if that got written into the budget, that money won’t be available until summer. What can you do for Hurley now? This even seems politically delicious for a Republican: You could go down to Hurley, deliver a fat check and talk about how the Biden administration has ignored the town. And you know what? You’d be right.
Let’s speak frankly: The jury is still out on you, governor. Yes, I know it’s early but the political world is always quick to judge, often too quick. Nevertheless, we can’t tell yet whether you’re more interested in showmanship (the ceremonial “banning” of critical race theory) or serious governance (helping the rural parts of Virginia that voted so strongly for you build a new economy). If those casinos in Bristol and Danville were open, I’d still wager on the latter. I’m putting a lot of faith in your tenure in the business world. So, here are 10 ways you can really help rural Virginia. And that last one even involves the potential for some showmanship.