Last November, the Senate Finance Committee held a retreat in Roanoke. One of the main topics was rural Virginia. The panel heard lots of presentations and saw lots of charts and graphs, few of them the sorts of things you’ll see chatted up at a local chamber of commerce meeting. All in all, it was a pretty dreary session, and not just because winter was setting in outside. There was talk about localities that qualified not simply as officially “distressed,” but “doubly distressed.” There were references to localities that don’t have economic development offices. There were figures about how North Carolina has been spending 16 times more than Virginia each year on site development.
The one thing I remember was a legislator from Northern Virginia – state Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William County – who felt moved to declare: “I think it’s incumbent upon us to do something and make considerable investments, not just in the sites, but other areas. I think this is an all-hands-on-deck effort.”
That was a great quote to use at the time. It’s also a great one to use six months later, now that we finally have a state budget. Was it really “all hands on deck” for rural Virginia?
Now, as a cynical, jaded journalist of many years, I am probably expected to tell you that it was all a sham, that the legislature went about its merry way and left rural Virginia standing out in the cold like a Dickensian orphan rattling a tin cup.
Except that doesn’t seem to be the case at all.
The western third of the state seems to have fared pretty darned well in the budget (and related legislation). Some of this might be the consequence of Richmond simply being awash with money – so much money that the General Assembly can both cut taxes and increase spending at the same time. Some of this might be the consequence of Republicans controlling the House of Delegates, with a majority leader (Terry Kilgore of Scott County) and deputy majority leader (Israel O’Quinn of Washington County) from Southwest Virginia. That’s not intended as partisan cheerleading, just an assessment of the facts. With a Republican majority, Del. Terry Austin of Botetourt County is now vice chairman of House Appropriations – and I see lots of budget items around the region that he had a personal hand in. On the other hand, I also see some items that Democrats were responsible for, which undermines the latter point and underscores the first one. (Example: The proposal from Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, to use Catawba Hospital in Roanoke County for substance abuse treatment. The House loved that idea; the state Senate did not. Rasoul, with a friendly assist from Austin and perhaps other budget conferees, got the language written into the spending plan anyway.)
Let’s take a look at how this year’s General Assembly did. For my purposes here, I’m skipping over things that don’t pertain directly or uniquely to Southwest and Southside, no matter how important they might be. I’m simply trying to assess whether the legislature really did live up to McPike’s declaration of “all hands on deck.”
First, in the spirit of Sherlock Holmes’ dog that didn’t bark, let’s acknowledge something the General Assembly didn’t do: It didn’t try to muck around and expand the territory covered by the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, aka the tobacco commission. For the past year, I’d been hearing rumblings that legislators from outside Southwest and Southside would try to make a run at the commission and expand its mission. At the Senate Finance Committee meeting, I heard those rumblings more clearly – that maybe the commission’s territory should be expanded to cover other rural areas. But nothing happened. Here’s why that’s a good thing: The commission’s money – part of the master settlement with tobacco companies in the 1990s – was specifically allocated to help build a new economy in former tobacco-growing counties. To expand the commission’s footprint would be to break faith with that promise – and dilute the money. There’s no doubt that rural areas outside tobacco country could benefit from such a fund for economic development, but let’s go ahead and set up that fund – don’t try to steal money from someplace else. So here’s a case where inaction is a good thing.
Beyond that … the budget includes $1.2 billion for school construction, with a financing scheme that supporters say could leverage up to $3 billion in construction. Cardinal’s Markus Schmidt has already gone over the details so I won’t repeat them, except to say: This is a big darned deal. The state has only sporadically shown interest in helping local governments fund school construction. That posture has worked to the disadvantage of many rural counties – but also some central cities that are also financially pressed to modernize their facilities. Here, we finally saw an odd couple coalition of rural Republicans and urban Democrats pull this off. This doesn’t solve the problem by any means; the state’s construction backlog is put at $25 billion, so I hope that state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, brings back his proposal next year for an advisory referendum for a $4 billion bond issue.
Still, let’s not miss the importance of what just happened. In 1949, liberal challenger Francis Pickens Miller nearly brought down the Byrd Machine’s preferred candidate with a campaign calling for state funding of school construction. Spooked by the close call, Gov. John Battle adopted the program as his own and over the course of his term, the state spent $75 million on school construction. That’s why you see so many schools – often consolidated schools – that were built in the 1950s. That construction program defined his legacy as governor, even if it wasn’t his idea to begin with. According to the Inflation Calculator, that $75 million then would be just under $900 million today. With this $1.2 billion package, the General Assembly just outdid Battle’s famous construction plan. This is historic.
The real measure of this program won’t simply be schools where roofs don’t leak, although that’s pretty important, too. If localities play this right, rural Virginia is going to get a lot of modern school facilities that will help prepare students for increasingly technological careers. That’s the real payoff here. Until now, we’ve had schools in Northern Virginia with state-of-the-art facilities while some schools in rural Virginia were trying to teach cybersecurity in buildings that weren’t wired for such power demands. (I was once told that schools in Lee County often had their power short out because of such power surges.) Now our students can be just as prepared.
If localities really want to play this coming construction binge right, they’ll plan to make these schools solar-powered – not because that’s a green and trendy thing to do, but because by selling power into the power grid on sunny days, schools can save an awful lot of money. Some North Carolina schools that have done this have found that they can generate more power than they consume. That doesn’t necessarily reduce the power bill to zero – schools still have to buy power on cloudy days, so they’re selling wholesale and buying retail – but they have found their power bills are a lot less. Middlesex County, over by the Chesapeake Bay, has solar-powered schools; it saved $50,000 the first year. Fiscal conservatives on local school boards should be demanding solar schools.
If that were all the legislature did, that alone would be considered a big win for rural areas – but the budget the General Assembly passed did a lot more. In an earlier column, I listed at least 10 potentially transformative things the legislature funded. I’m still amazed that state Sen. Steve Newman, R-Bedford County, was able to pull off $25 million in funding to pay off the bonds for the now-closed Central Virginia Training Center in Amherst County, setting the stage for the state to sell that property and open it up for development. I’m amazed not because I ever doubted Newman’s legislative prowess – he’s a senior legislator, after all, and had the advantage of being a budget negotiator – but because $25 million is a staggering amount of money.
I won’t repeat everything I said in the earlier column – you can read all that insightful prose here – but suffice it to say the legislature has laid some important groundwork for building a new economy in this part of the state. The Lynchburg area has a big opportunity with that Central Virginia Training Center site. The $15.7 million for life science labs in Roanoke helps accelerate a growing business cluster spinning out of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC. There’s also $5 million in the budget for truck research in the New River Valley, part of accelerating growth of an existing transportation cluster that’s important enough to already be a finalist for $75 million in federal funding that the Biden administration intends to hand out to promising economic hubs. (I had originally reported $2.5 million but turns out the figure is actually twice that.) So here are important state investments in the three biggest metros in this part of Virginia.
There’s also money for a study of an inland port in the Lynchburg area or somewhere from Wytheville to Bristol. The existing inland port around Front Royal accounts for about 6,000 jobs – and growing. If that got duplicated in either Lynchburg or the Wytheville-to-Bristol corridor, that would constitute a bigger economic development announcement than anything we’ve seen in generations. Even if you cut that figure in half, that’s still more than the 2,500 jobs projected at the Blue Star medical glove factory in Wythe County – and when that was announced last fall, it was called the biggest economic announcement in this part of the state in the history of Virginia’s record-keeping. The money for site development would help finish grading at the Southern Virginia Mega Site at Berry Hill in Pittsylvania County, the one that lost out to the Georgia-bound Hyundai electric vehicle battery plant, apparently because Georgia’s site was more construction-ready. If a few bulldozers are all that stand between us and 8,100 jobs (the figure cited for Hyundai), then those bulldozers are a pretty good investment.
I sometimes seem to spend a lot of time columnizing about all the ways that Southwest and Southside are getting left behind. Earlier this year I wrote about how the Senate Finance Committee had inexplicably cut the funding necessary for the University of Virginia’s College at Wise to add two majors, data analytics and hospitality and tourism management. The final budget restored that funding. Two majors at the state’s second smallest four-year public college (Virginia Military Institute is the smallest) may not seem a big deal, but they could be. Southwest Virginia is banking on tourism – through the Spearhead Trails, for instance – to drive part of its future economy. That industry will need managers. And most businesses of the future are going to be powered by data analytics. This isn’t the major investment I’ve been advocating for UVA Wise but it’s a start.
Another modest but potentially important investment in Southwest Virginia: legislation that calls for the state to tally up just how many piles of waste coal there are sitting around and identify some options for cleaning them up. (Cardinal’s Markus Schmidt wrote earlier this year why that’s a big deal.) That’s not the same thing as providing money to clean them up, but first things first. The General Assembly also did what the federal government has failed to do: provide flood relief for the flood-stricken Buchanan County community of Hurley, to the tune of $11.4 million. That seemed a big ask when Del. Will Morefield, R-Tazewell County, made it last winter, yet it seems to have sailed right through. That won’t build a new economy in Hurley, but it will help rebuild the community that nearly got wiped out last August. If the General Assembly had rejected this money, I was prepared to unleash a torrent of words. Guess I’ll have to save them.
There are lots of other interesting investments in this part of Virginia. Austin secured $12.5 million for developing a trail along Craigs Creek in Craig County and Botetourt County, $5.8 million to pay off the debt at Natural Bridge State Park in Rockbridge County and $5 million to develop the Green Pastures park in Alleghany County. (One of the first stories we published last fall was about Green Pastures.) All that helps strengthen a growing outdoors-related economy in this part of Virginia.
There’s surely a lot more the General Assembly could do for rural Virginia – my wish list is pretty long. I still think if Virginia someday passes some legislation to enable the construction of a football stadium for the Washington Commanders in Northern Virginia (a prospect that now looks about the same as the team’s chances to win the Super Bowl, meaning, umm, zero), the state ought to set up some revenue stream for rural Virginia. (Perhaps that’s a way to fund a tobacco commission-like fund for all those “doubly distressed” rural areas that fall outside the tobacco commission footprint?) And the legislature left undone all the rules for a legal cannabis market, which could be written to provide some incentives for rural Virginia. Or not. (I laid out some of those ideas in an earlier column). But realistically, this seems a lot more than we would have expected.
My original question was whether it really was “all hands on deck” for rural Virginia. Honestly, I’m not sure what “all decks on deck” for rural Virginia would look like. But it might look a lot like what just happened.