U.S. Senator Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, urged local officials Friday to emphasize workforce development as work continues on Pittsylvania County’s megasite.
Kaine toured the 3,500-acre site, known as the Southern Virginia Mega Site at Berry Hill, before hosting a roundtable discussion on the site, how best to start it, and what Kaine can do from Washington.
“I’m very excited,” Kaine said at the conclusion of the tour and roundtable, adding that Pittsylvania County is properly positioned to optimally make use of the megasite as an economic driver.
The site has finished second for at least three big projects over the past year. Hyundai passed over the site last year for an 8,100-job electric vehicle battery plant and went to Georgia instead because that site was closer to being ready. The site was in the running for a 2,500-job Ford electric vehicle battery plant until Gov. Glenn Youngkin nixed the state’s bid over concerns about Ford’s ties to a Chinese company; Ford went to Michigan instead. More recently, a lithium company chose South Carolina over the megasite because that site was closer to the company’s headquarters.
A number of local officials joined Kaine for the discussion, including Danville Councilmember Sherman Saunders.
“We are really, really making progress,” Saunders said, adding that he has seen the project evolve to its current state from when it was first launched more than a decade ago.
The length of time it has taken to get the site up to its current level isn’t out of the ordinary, in Kaine’s experience.
“It is a long time but it’s not completely unheard of,” Kaine said, citing the pandemic as an attributing factor to the site’s timeline. “The site is at a good place right now.”
While much of the site is currently under construction, plans for the publicly owned site boasts rail to and from the property, around a dozen lots and space for a 125 MW solar power array.
“The thing about the site…you have natural gas, water, waste water, rail access…a lot of tenants want to get their energy from solar,” Kaine said. “I think the site you have is second to none.”
Kaine said that while these and other amenities will attract tenants to the megasite, the promise of an educated and prepared local workforce will be just as appealing to prospective companies.
“It’s hard to find folks, so there are workforce challenges,” Kaine said before adding that a wide range of industries are looking to address workforce-related challenges.
“We all know that workforce is kind of number one right now because we’re hearing from hospitals, the hospitality industry, general contractors, everybody is saying what are we going to do about the workforce.”
A former governor and local official, Kaine said he remembers a time when attracting businesses largely entailed tax incentives. While this hasn’t changed, workforce needs have become a point of concern.
“I’ve been in state office since I was lieutenant governor in 2002,” Kaine said. “By the time I was governor and even now, workforce has become important, even before the incentive package.”
Emphasizing local education is only part of the workforce solution, according to Kaine. He touched briefly on immigration and its potential impact on the workforce, saying that is one of the issues he will have to pursue on his end.
“We have to do immigration reform, we have to,” Kaine said. “We’ve traditionally had a lot of folks coming into Virginia and the country with skills.”
Kaine said that as of now, the outlook for the site is positive enough to serve as a sort of nationwide blueprint for communities hoping to tap into their own workforce potential.
“It’s a pilot project,” Kaine said. “There could be many more like [the megasite] around the country.”