The University of Virginia's College at Wise. Courtesy of UVA-Wise.

In December, with much fanfare, then-Gov. Ralph Northam announced he was proposing $11.5 million in additional funding for the University of Virginia’s College at Wise.

This was a well-orchestrated roll-out, with statements following from the university chancellor and the two legislators whose districts include the school – state Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County, and incoming House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County.

“UVA Wise is doing great things in Southwest Virginia to help the region’s economy grow and diversify,” Northam said. 

“This is a big step forward to growing our College and providing opportunities for growth for the region,” Kilgore said.

“UVA Wise is an important regional asset for Southwest Virginia and this budget recommendation recognizes that,” Pillion said.

The school laid out details about how it would use the additional funds – with nearly half of it dedicated to creating new majors, one in data analytics, another in hospitality and tourism management.

That was then. This is now. The two chambers in the General Assembly have now had their way with Northam’s proposed budget – it’s an oddity of the Virginia system that we now have a new governor but are working with a budget proposed by the old one. The House budget keeps that money intact. The Senate version does not. It whittled down that extra $11.5 million to a mere $1.9 million – not enough, the school’s vice chancellor says, to add those two majors after all.

It’s often hard to understand how the budget-writing committees arrive at their decisions. Then again, sometimes it’s not hard at all. The House Appropriations Committee includes two legislators from far Southwest Virginia – Will Wampler, R-Washington County, and Will Morefield, R-Tazewell County. The Senate Finance Committee doesn’t include any. It used to have Charles Carrico, R-Grayson County, but he retired and his seat was reassigned elsewhere. The committee’s westernmost member now is John Edwards, D-Roanoke.

You don’t have to have decades of experience in covering Virginia politics to see exactly what happened here: There was no one on Senate Finance to defend that appropriation, which meant that it was easy pickings for other legislators. If you really want to be cynical, which I try not to be but am sometimes forced by circumstance to be, you can see this: The House is now run by Republicans and Virginia Republicans owe much of their majority status to their support in rural areas. The Senate, though, is still in Democratic hands and the Democratic vote in the state is concentrated in metro areas – and is weakest in coal country. I’ll let you do the political math from there. I’d love to be proven wrong about the politics but the lack of a Southwest senator on Senate Finance is an objective fact.

There’s a lot of back-and-forth about which party does the best job of supporting education. I’ll let the partisans litigate that issue somewhere else. On this particular education item, though, the budget from the Republican House is self-evidently superior to the one from the Democratic Senate. (One important caveat: This additional funding began with a Democratic governor, so it’s not as clearly partisan as it may seem, although Northam is now gone so not in a position to speak up for his initial proposal.)

In any case, enough of the politics. Let’s move onto the policy – and why all this matters. We know that universities are economic engines. UVa-Wise is the only four-year state-supported school west of Radford. It sits in the heart of coal country, which is in the direst need of re-inventing its economy. Virginia ought to be pouring money into UVa-Wise as one of the surest ways of generating economic growth in that part of the state. Again, let’s give credit where credit is due: Northam proposed all this in broad terms when he was running for governor in 2017. Many of his specific proposals for UVa-Wise never happened – such as making it a research university with a focus on renewable energy – but the $11.5 million he proposed in his outgoing budget was very much in keeping with his overall belief in UVa-Wise as a key part of building a new economy in coal country.

The two new majors that would be created with some of this “new” money aren’t plucked out of some academic’s dream. They are both rooted in the real-world needs of the Southwest Virginia economy.

“Employers are telling us they are really going to focus on analytics,” says Shannon Blevins, the school’s vice chancellor for administrative, government relations and strategic initiatives. “That’s what businesses in our region and broader laborshed are telling us they need – people with those skills.”

She says the pandemic has highlighted the region’s need for people with skills at crunching “big data.” When it came time for companies to pivot to e-commerce, companies found “they needed people dedicated to the business analytics” but had a hard time finding such skillsets in Southwest Virginia. “It’s really hard to find people to manage big data sets.” (I’ll testify to how data drives business: When we started Cardinal News, I thought I’d be spending my time writing columns, assigning stories, editing stories, posting stories. And I am. But I’m also spending a lot of time trying to make sense of the volumes of data that our website produces, trying to figure out who we’re reaching and how we can reach more. In the online space, we’re all data analysts now. All the time I spent studying Elizabethan poetry isn’t helping me much there, I’m afraid.)

At the end of the year, Old Dominion University published a report on the state economy in which it warned that Virginia “is pulling apart” economically. Here’s one specific example. Is Virginia content with a situation where Northern Virginia has so many tech jobs that some localities are now starting to talk about how to limit some of that tech growth (data centers, in particular), while another part of the state goes begging? How this budget item gets settled will provide a small answer to that very big question.

The hospitality major may seem a lot softer than some hard-core tech major but it’s also based in a new reality of the Southwest Virginia economy: The region is transforming itself into a tourist destination. This process began decades ago with the Crooked Road Heritage Music Trail. It’s accelerated more recently with the development of Clinch River State Park and the Spearhead Trails. (See the story Sarah Wade had last fall about tourism and the town of St. Paul, or the one Mark Taylor had recently about the tourism draw of the state’s growing elk herd in Buchanan County.) And then there’s the biggest tourist development of all – the casino coming to Bristol. “Weve had  a huge increase in tourism recently in our region,” Blevins says.

There are numbers that back that up: A 2016 report found that tourism dollars being spent in the region were up 56% over a decade before. Of course, that report is now six years old, and when you’re growing from a small base, percentage growth rates are always going to look impressive. However, in the four years between 2016 and 2019 (the last pre-pandemic report), tourism spending in Southwest Virginia was up a healthy 11.2%, according to the Virginia Tourism Corporation. The Bristol casino will surely only increase that. “This is going to be part of the regional strategy for rebuilding our economy,” Blevins says. “You need capable managers.” This major is a way for Southwest Virginia to grow its own labor pool.

So, yes, I’m mystified at the Senate decision to whack most of that money. There probably was no ill intent. It was probably a case of some senator needing money for this project over there and no one was around on Senate Finance to say “Whoa, wait” when someone suggested, “Hey, let’s take the money from UVa Wise.” But the effect, intended or otherwise, is to send a signal to Southwest Virginia that says: “We’re just not that into you.” Businesses in Southwest that need data analysts? Not that important. A growing tourism industry that might need managers? Not that important, either. But a new football stadium in Northern Virginia? Oh, let’s rush that one through with no questions asked.

Maybe I’m wrong. I hope I’m wrong. But the best way to prove me wrong would be for the General Assembly to fund those programs, after all.

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.