Welcome back to my 2022 All-Star selections to coincide with tonight’s Major League Baseball All-Star game.
Yesterday I named a team of political heavy-hitters. Today I’ll put together a roster of big economic players, which, as you’ll see, includes a lot of institutions rather than specific people. The same rules apply. All selections must come from our coverage area of Southwest and Southside. I’ll also emphasize again two key criteria for my picks: Cardinal’s main goal is to cover how Southwest and Southside are building a new economy, so I put a premium on anything dealing with economic development. I must also stress that these aren’t endorsements; they’re a reflection of impact. My reason for emphasizing this will become clearer once you see some of the picks. This is also meant to reflect things that have happened over the past year, not lifetime achievements. Otherwise we might have a very different list. So, let’s introduce the team – once again, in alphabetical order, and with 10 members to account for the designated hitter.
- Blue Star NBR announced last fall it will build a medical glove factory in Wythe County that will employ 2,500 people. To put that in context, the Virginia Economic Development Partnership database says this is the second-largest manufacturing jobs announcement in the state since 1990, when the database begins. It’s also the largest jobs announcement in any sector outside the state’s urban crescent since the start of the database. So yeah, this is kind of a big deal.
- Bristol Casino. Virginia’s first casino opened July 8. Cardinal’s Megan Schnabel wrote then about the economic impact it’s already having. Need I say more?
- Emory & Henry College. College enrollment is declining, a consequence of demographics producing fewer college-age young adults. Emory & Henry, though, is bucking that trend, which seems unusual for a small, private school. It’s been steadily gaining enrollment for a decade (from 944 in 2012 to 1,356 last fall) and now is adding dorms and other facilities to accommodate that growth – and accelerate it. See the story by Susan Cameron. President John Wells says his goal is making the school “the flagship higher education institution of Middle Appalachia.” In a knowledge-based economy, colleges are economic engines and Emory & Henry is building a bigger one.
- The Harvest Foundation. One of the biggest challenges in rural Virginia is raising the skill level of the workforce, which can be measured in many ways, but education is certainly one big metric. Unfortunately, that’s also a metric where Southwest and Southside come up way short. Statewide, 38.7% of adults 25 and older have a college education. Nationally, the figure is 35%. In Martinsville, though, it’s 20.9% and in Henry County, it’s 12.8%. Those aren’t even the lowest figures, either. The absolute lowest is 7.5% in Greensville County. The Harvest Foundation in Martinsville – funded in 2002 from the sale of the local nonprofit hospital – has set out to do something about that. For the past three years, it’s had a pilot program where it’s paid the tuition for Martinsville and Henry County graduates who attend community college. Now the foundation has doubled down, or, more accurately, more than quadrupled down. It’s now announced a 13-year commitment to pay that tuition. (See the story by Lindley Estes). This poses a challenges for other communities similarly-situated: What are they doing to raise their education levels?
- Fralin Biomedical Research Institute. This may have been the year where the general public finally got a sense of what’s happening down by the Roanoke River in Roanoke – the Star City is building a real life sciences cluster, with the institute driving much of that growth. Roanoke now has more research spending than all 15 of its official peer cities put together. In 2019, Roanoke had $31.5 million compared to $29.2 million for all the others, according to the National Science Foundation. By 2021, that figure was up to $140 million. Now it’s said to be more than $180 million with more on the way. Two things happened in the past year to solidify the public perception of all this research growth: Plans were announced to create lab space in both Blacksburg and Roanoke, with Johnson & Johnson Innovation’s JLABS initiative a partner in that project. Then the General Assembly put up $15.7 million to build out that lab space in Roanoke. That’s not formally aligned with the institute, but it’s hard to imagine much of this happening without the institute. If you’re thinking in baseball terms (and I am), the Fralin Institute is the star of that life sciences cluster team, and so has earned a spot.
- InvestSWVA. This Bristol-based economic development group has been asking big, important questions. The latest: Could Southwest Virginia capture part of the supply chain for the offshore wind industry? On the one hand, this seems implausible: The coalfields are a long way from the coast. On the other hand, why not? Somebody is going to get this supply chain. It’s more likely to go to a place that asks than a place that doesn’t. InvestSWVA commissioned a study that identified a lot of businesses in the region that are well-placed to pivot to manufacturing parts for the wind industry. We need more places asking creative questions like this, so here’s an All-Star pick for InvestSWVA (and its director, Will Payne). For more on Project Veer, see the coverage by Cardinal’s Megan Schnabel.
- Randolph Solar Project. If I’m making controversial picks, I may as well swing for the fences, right? The giant Randolph Solar project in Charlotte County, recently approved by the Board of Supervisors, would be the largest solar farm in the state and one of the largest east of the Mississippi. It would encompass 21,000 acres, although “only” 3,000 of those would be covered by solar panels. If impact is the criteria, this is impact. It’s also the best-known example of the solar boom taking place all across Southside. Some see this as a good thing: Here’s lots of green energy soon to come online (the state’s already doubled its solar output in the past year) and here’s a way for a lot of property owners to make some money on land that previously didn’t produce much. Others see this as a bad thing: The industrialization of a rural area. They’re not alone in feeling overwhelmed by solar. The top winner at this year’s Berlin Film Festival was “Alcarràs,” about a family of Spanish peach farmers who are displaced by a solar farm. The Spanish director calls the film “a form of resistance.” The growth of solar across Southside is reshaping that part of the state before our very eyes; this All-Star selection is a way to recognize that.
- Hermie Sadler, the former NASCAR driver who now owns a truck stop in Emporia, and . . .
- State Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County. They’re the ones challenging the state’s attempt to ban so-called “skill games,” the gaming machines you see at a lot of convenience stores (and Sadler’s truck stop). These games are controversial, to be sure, including whether there’s truly any actual skill involved. Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City County, has likened the games to legalized thievery. Stanley and Sadler take a more libertarian approach: If people want to play, why can’t they? They also point out that Virginia just legalized casinos; why is the state saying that kind of gaming is OK and this isn’t? The casino industry hates skill games because they see them as competition. Again, Stanley and Sadler ask: Why is the state picking winners and losers? Sadler has sued to challenge the state’s ban; Stanley is his attorney and so far they’ve won an injunction. Cardinal’s Markus Schmidt wrote about this in detail back in May. The bigger picture here: Many rural localities get a lot more revenue from these games than their urban counterparts do. I looked at those revenue figures in an earlier column. That’s why Stanley and Sadler make the list: This is something with impact, whether you’re a fan of the games or not.
- Volvo. The Pulaski County truck manufacturer showed off its first electric truck this year and just a few weeks ago had an event to celebrate a Wytheville-based logistics company that’s started to convert its fleet to electric. The significance of this: The economic geography of the electric vehicle industry is being drawn now. The gas-driven auto industry was based in Detroit but it’s clear this one will be more dispersed. A lot of electric vehicle work — both making the vehicles and the batteries that make them go — is winding up in either California or the Southeast. Georgia’s landed two electric vehicle plants this year. One of those, a Hyundai battery plant, strongly considered the Southern Virginia Mega Site in Pittsylvania County before picking Savannah instead. Volvo’s presence in the electric truck market, though, shows that industry will not bypass us entirely. If we can land an electric vehicle company for that Pittsylvania County site, we’d be in the game in a big-time way. Maybe an entry for next year’s All-Star team?
Are there other people and entities I’m leaving off this list? I’m sure there are, just not intentionally. But we have other days, and other columns. For now, play ball!