Michele Chang, deputy assistant secretary for policy, U.S. Economic Development Administration, leads a panel discussion on the transportation cluster, held at the Volvo plant in Pulaski County. Photo courtesy of Virginia Tech.

1974 feels a long time ago now, its influence diminishing every year – unless, of course, you can line up the colors on a Rubik’s Cube or you plot fantasy adventures in Dungeons & Dragons, both of which came out that year.

Or you live in the New River or Roanoke valleys, in which case the influence of 1974 grows every year.

At the time, the big local event in 1974 was freshman Rep. Caldwell Butler of Roanoke breaking with his Republican Party to vote to impeach President Richard Nixon. To be sure, Butler’s political courage still looms large in Virginia politics – any politician who takes the easy way out gets compared unfavorably to Butler.

In hindsight, though, another event in 1974 seems significant, too. That was the year the White Motor Co. bought a 300-acre site in Pulaski County near the town of Dublin and started building trucks the following year with 150 workers. White didn’t last. It went bankrupt in 1981 and was taken over by Volvo. Today, though, that Volvo operation in Pulaski is a sprawling enterprise that employs 3,600 workers and is the core of a full-fledged automotive sector in the region that – depending on how broadly you define the region – counts 79,000 workers. (That definition covers a region from Southwest Virginia to Brunswick County in Southside.) Virginia Tech computes the economic impact at 15.7% of the gross domestic product of the region.

Dublin is not Detroit, but it is a kind of ground zero for a part of the economy in this part of the state that often goes unrecognized. I wrote recently how Roanoke has built a life sciences cluster pretty much from scratch, with the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute as its driver. Roanoke now attracts more research dollars than its 15 official peer cities put together. Out-of-town journalists used to swoop into Roanoke and write pieces calling the place “a homely city in a lovely setting,” “a gritty former railroad town,” even once “an often neglected and declining old mining town.” (There was never mining in Roanoke.) They don’t do that anymore, and that life sciences cluster is surely one of the reasons. There are shiny new buildings that have risen up from former industrial brownfields where internationally recognized brain research is taking place. Roanoke is even kind of sexy now.

The region’s transportation cluster doesn’t get that kind of attention, although perhaps it should. The transportation cluster is scattered over multiple counties, tucked away in industrial parks rather than a downtown “innovation corridor.” But it’s there nonetheless. “Eldor, Dynax, Metalsa, Altec,” says Ken McFadyen, economic development director for Botetourt County. “And that’s just Botetourt,” a county about an hour away from the Volvo plant. All those are companies engaged in some aspect of the automotive business; Metalsa, he says, located in Botetourt specifically to be near the Volvo plant. They’re not the only ones. And we have not yet mentioned companies such as Torc Robotics in Montgomery County, which has been working on automated vehicles for years now (and is now affiliated with Daimler Trucks), or Google’s Wing, which made Christiansburg the first test site in the country for commercial deliveries by drone, or the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, which is described as the second-biggest university-affiliated transportation research institute in the country. (Texas A&M is number one.) Five of its faculty are among Tech’s top 10 awardees for sponsored research. At any given time, that institute alone has about 500 full-time or part-time employees on the payroll. (Tech’s institute can be traced back to the Smart Road smart-technology test bed, which grew out of a 1980s idea for a more direct highway link between Roanoke and Blacksburg. That highway never happened, but the test bed — and all its related research — did). Even if there were no Volvo, the sheer heft of Virginia Tech’s transportation-related work would be significant, so perhaps it’s better to say that the whole New River Valley is ground zero for a sector whose impact ripples out across Southwest and Southside.

Just because this transportation sector doesn’t always get the attention locally that it should doesn’t mean it’s gone unrecognized elsewhere. Before the pandemic, officials at the Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport told me they saw an unusual number of passengers from Detroit – auto industry researchers coming to Blacksburg to learn about the work going on there. In December, a coalition of 50 public and private partners led by Virginia Tech was named one of 60 finalists in the Biden administration’s Build Back Better Challenge; 20 to 30 of those will be selected for up to $100 million in funding to help build out their particular economic cluster. (The official “ask” is for $75 million; a decision is expected by the end of September.) The Tech-led proposal focused on autonomous and electric vehicles. On Friday, a Biden administration official visited the New River Valley to lead a panel discussion about how the region is building its transportation sector.

Michele Chang, deputy assistant secretary for policy, U.S. Economic Development Administration. Photo courtesy of Virginia Tech.

Michele Chang, deputy assistant secretary for policy, U.S. Economic Development Administration, was quick to say that the visit did not signify anything as far as the overall application. The communities she’s visited were drawn at random from the 60 finalists, she said, and she will not be among those deciding who the final winners are. Still, her visit was taken as a sign of something. “It signifies that the Southwest Virginia transportation cluster is legitimate,” McFayden said.

A word here about what the Biden administration is trying to do: In all, it’s going to give out about $1 billion to build up different economic hubs around the country. Meanwhile, Congress is working out the details on a Biden-backed “competitiveness” bill that would spend anywhere from $250 billion (the Senate version) to $350 billion (the House version) to beef up technology sectors. Much of the attention has focused on how those bills would try to expand domestic production of computer chips, which are now dominated by Asian manufacturers. I’ve written before about how the bills would designate up to 18 regional tech hubs that would be eligible for a total of $10 billion in federal research and development spending. (I’ve also speculated that, given the likely rules, the New River Valley might have a good shot at winning one of those designations.) U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, and U.S. Rep. Don McEachin, D-Richmond, are among the conferees working out the details. The big picture here: The Biden administration is intent on making sure the nation’s technology sector is not concentrated in a relative handful of “superstar” cities. A Brookings Institution report in 2019 found that some 90% of the nation’s innovation sector growth took place in just five places: Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, San Diego and San Jose. Or four if you count San Francisco and San Jose as all part of the same economic area known as Silicon Valley. “There is great disparity in this country about how the economy benefits the whole nation,” Chang said Friday. “Some regions are thriving, some are faltering. That’s why we have made equity part of our mission.” Usually when we hear the word “equity,” it’s in a racial context, but equity, or the lack thereof, can be geographic, as well. “We want to create an economy that is more equitable, more distributed,” Chang said. Whatever you might think of President Joe Biden, this effort to spread the nation’s tech industry growth more evenly around the country may well be one of his most important legacies. Naturally, that’s not what makes the headlines, but I digress.

The panel discussion Chang led covered a lot of ground that will sound familiar to those who play close attention to economic issues. Dean Sprinkle, the president of Wytheville Community College, lamented shortages in affordable housing and child care. Anthony Cerelli, vice president of operations for Genedge, talked about how the region needs more workers – the labor pool simply isn’t big enough for some employers. Erin Burcham, president of the Verge Technology Alliance, expressed concern about an underserved population that doesn’t have access to internships to get the training to be qualified for some of those jobs. (Disclosure: She’s on our community advisory committee, but committee members have no role in news decisions.)

All that can be pretty dispiriting sometimes. But there were hopeful moments, too. Chris Williams, a professor of mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech, talked about how more Tech students want to stay in the region than actually do. Those others don’t stay, he said, because “right now there’s not a lot of opportunity.” More tech jobs would help them stay. The challenge, he said: “We need to change the everlasting problem of the brand of manufacturing.” Many of these factory jobs are really tech jobs, he said.

Keith Brandis, vice president for partnerships and system solutions at Volvo, told Chang that federal funding has been essential for research into electric vehicles, and about how that federal investment was now paying off. “I don’t know that we’d have jumped into that market” without federal funding first, he said. But now it has. The Pulaski plant started producing electric trucks last year. The order then was for 16 trucks for a California trucking company; now that same firm has ordered 110 more, and he talked about a “drive to electrification.” He lamented that “manufacturing is not sexy,” that graduates who want to go into engineering “think of Silicon Valley and becoming a billionaire and riding into space.” He posed a different question to potential graduates: “Do you want to have a part in making our society better?” The pandemic, he said, highlighted the importance of trucking – trucks now deliver right to your door. His company isn’t just building electric trucks, he said, it’s “changing our society.” Few football coaches have delivered a more impassioned pre-game speech.

From that first truck factory in the 1970s, the New River Valley has built an important but not sufficiently heralded economic sector that now extends well beyond the New River Valley. Just think of what it would be if the region makes the final cut and gets that $75 million.

Michele Chang, deputy assistant secretary for policy, U.S. Economic Development Administration, poses with panel participants in front of a Volvo truck. Photo courtesy of Virginia Tech.

Dwayne Yancey

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