During the most recent General Assembly session, legislators from both parties cited stories in Cardinal News as support for their positions.
That was flattering.
This week, a political figure in the Lynchburg area cited something in Cardinal News as support for his position.
I suppose this is flattering, although I fear that he has drawn the wrong conclusion from that piece, so let’s take a look.
Isaiah Knight is a well-known conservative activist from Bedford County. In 2017 he was an unsuccessful candidate for the Bedford County School Board. In 2019, he was elected to the Peaks of Otter Soil and Water Conservation District. In 2021, he challenged Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford County, for the Republican nomination.
On Tuesday, he sent an email to the governing bodies in Lynchburg, Bedford County and Campbell County, asking the council members and supervisors to withhold funding for the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance, the economic development group for the region.
Here’s what he had to say:
For years I have spoken against redistributing citizen’s tax dollars to corporate entities, including the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance. It’s my understanding many have been vocal about supporting the LRBA, including Delegate [Wendell] Walker who sent a letter to the Bedford BOS claiming we need to continue sending tax payer dollars to this organization, even though federal data shows the Lynchburg metro has recovered from pandemic slower than any other metro in Virginia*.
Then I was recently informed that the LRBA created a “Diversity, Equity & Inclusion” page which included links to various DEI pages, including a link to one website that recommends individuals donate to BLM and get involved with their organization. According to the “Way Back Machine,” a web application that archives websites*, this was published a short time after the shenanigans at 5th and Federal in 2020. Within hours of me bringing this page to the attention of various Board Members and Community Leaders the page is no longer on the live website.
I cannot see how anyone can justify another single tax payer cent being sent to this organization.
Lynchburg City Council member Marty Misjuns hit “reply all” to respond:
Thank you for bringing this to our attention. During the budget process, I had concerns when the LRBA appeared to be lobbying harder for their own $100k than tax cuts for businesses.
I reviewed the archived website in the Wayback machine. I find it very disturbing that tax dollars contributed to a DEI website praising the BLM movement, just weeks after riots associated with that movement in Lynchburg resulted in police officers being shot at, and a local business being destroyed.
The radical DEI agenda has absolutely nothing to do with creating jobs or growing the economy in the region. It’s wholly inappropriate for government to force individuals, families and businesses to fund this agenda.
Some of the things referenced will require some explanation before we get to the main point, so hang on.
The “shenanigans” Knight refers to and the “riots” that Misjuns mentions were protests outside a Lynchburg restaurant that turned into a riot in May 2020. Those protests began when then-Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., protesting the mask mandates in effect during the pandemic, tweeted his proposal for a suitable mask, which included the infamous “blackface” photo from then-Gov. Ralph Northam’s yearbook page. The restaurant owner retweeted that tweet, saying he’d give that mask to his employees. According to news reports at the time, the protest began with a single person holding up a Black Lives Matter sign, which grew to 100 protesters and then into what was generally described as a “riot,” with people throwing rocks, assaulting police officers and vandalizing buildings. One officer was injured; two people were arrested.
The two asterisks led to two links. The second of those went to the Wayback Machine’s archive that shows the DEI page that used to be on the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance website. That page linked to 35 others: 13 articles, six additional resources, seven podcasts, nine videos and educational opportunities. These links range from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the National Public Radio’s Code Sw!tch program. There are no links to, or mention of, Black Lives Matter on the alliance’s site, although it’s entirely possible there are links out there on the sites it links to. Megan Lucas, CEO and chief economic development officer of the alliance, says the page was created in the wake of the national disturbances following the murder of George Floyd to help businesses that were searching for ways to deal with equity issues. She said the page was recently taken down after she learned that many of the links had gone bad or the content had changed.
I will let others debate that and the larger diversity, equity and inclusion movement. I will just gently point out two things. First, diversity issues may well play a part in growing the economy. Every locality needs to recruit (and retain) talented workers. In an increasingly diverse society, that means making sure that the community is seen as a welcoming place. That’s not a political viewpoint; that’s something I’ve heard from businesses that have had difficulty recruiting talent, so I’m not at all surprised that the business alliance might have had such a page. I notice that the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, hardly a radical organization, earlier this summer sponsored the Virginia Forum on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, where one of the main events was a panel discussion titled “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: A matter of Virginia’s economic competitiveness and prosperity.” Second, here’s a situation where the interests of business may diverge from those of politicians. Politicians, on either side, need only to appeal to 51% of the electorate. Many businesses need to be responsive to the concerns of a broader marketplace.
Ultimately, though, that’s not the part of all this that I’m interested in. This is: The first link in Knight’s email went to a column I wrote last December in Cardinal: “Lynchburg metro has recovered from pandemic slower than any other metro area in Virginia, report shows.”
I’m honored that someone is citing our work but Knight is drawing a conclusion from that column that I didn’t intend — and don’t really understand. If the Lynchburg metro is growing slowly (and it is), isn’t that even more of a reason to support the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance? To cite slow economic growth as a reason for eliminating city and county funding for the regional economic development group seems to me to be completely backwards.
This isn’t the first time that the idea of cutting funding for the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance has been floated. One draft of Lynchburg’s budget earlier this year called for eliminating the city’s $100,067 contribution, although the final version kept the funding intact. At the time, Lynchburg Mayor Stephanie Reed — a Republican — said that doing away with funding for the group would be “shooting ourselves in the foot.”
Since this is my column being cited in Knight’s email to local officials in Lynchburg, Bedford and Campbell, allow me to marshal some economic statistics that those same local officials should find relevant.
The Lynchburg metro’s economy is growing slowly, as measured several different ways.
- A report by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis last year found that the Lynchburg metro’s economy had yet not returned to pre-pandemic levels. That report found the Lynchburg metro to be the biggest metro in the state that still wasn’t back to where it was in 2019.
2. A report by Old Dominion University also found that the gross domestic product for the Lynchburg metro has actually shrunk over the past decade, from 2010 to 2021. During that time, the nation’s GDP grew by 2.4%, Virginia’s GDP grew by 1.4%, but Lynchburg’s contracted by -.0.4%. Only one other metro in the state (Staunton) saw its GDP shrink over that period.
3. Data assembled by the Federal Reserve Bank in Richmond found that the Lynchburg metro has the slowest job growth of any metro in Virginia over the past 10 years.
Why is Lynchburg growing so slowly? Is it because the alliance is doing a poor job? Not at all. It’s growing slowly because the Lynchburg metro’s economy is based on business sectors where employment is shrinking — and the business sectors in Lynchburg that are growing are relatively small. That configuration of the Lynchburg metro’s economy isn’t something that happened recently; this is something that has developed over decades.
Here are the four biggest economic sectors in the Lynchburg metro:
Education and health service: 18.9%
Trade, transportation and utilities: 17.4%
Over the past four years, employment in all four of those sectors declined.
The wonder isn’t that the Lynchburg metro is growing slowly, it’s that it’s growing at all.
Since 2000, the Lynchburg metro has seen 11 job reductions or closings of 300 jobs or more, according to the Virginia Economic Development Partnership’s jobs announcement database. Three of the four biggest (involving 500 or more jobs apiece) were outright closings. This is the restructuring of the American economy in action, driven by forces beyond the command of any locality, often driven by forces beyond the command of even the federal government. Lynchburg is much like other small cities across the country; its economy has been based on industries that have declined or disappeared altogether.
Meanwhile, the Lynchburg metro hasn’t seen a lot of big jobs announcements to counteract these contractions. Since 2000, it has seen seven announcements of 300 jobs-plus. Of those, five were at call centers (the other two were related to Lynchburg’s two big nuclear companies, Framatome and BWXT). Call center jobs are not to be diminished; they are important to the people who hold them. But if five of the seven biggest jobs announcements are call centers, that’s probably not the best way to build a higher-wage, faster-growth economy.
The challenge for Lynchburg — and everyone else — is to reinvent its economy, but that doesn’t happen on its own. Somebody’s got to lead that. Here’s one big possible reinvention on the horizon: The Lynchburg metro is now in the running to be designated by the U.S. Commerce Department as one of at least 20 “regional technology hubs” — with nuclear energy, thanks to Lynchburg’s nuclear companies, as the theme. For technical reasons, there are two separate applications dealing with Lynchburg, but the one for planning money comes from the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance — the very group that Knight and apparently Misjuns want to see defunded. By my reckoning, which I laid out in previous columns, Lynchburg would seem a potentially strong contender for one of these hubs. Even if Lynchburg doesn’t win, the alliance’s pitch serves to raise Lynchburg’s profile as a potential growth site for nuclear-related companies.
There are probably lots of reasons Lynchburg hasn’t scored many big job announcements over the past two decades or more, but here’s a big one: the lack of large-acreage industrial sites. A study by the alliance earlier this year found that over the past six years, the region has failed to qualify for 65 economic development prospects — whose employment totalled 12,000 jobs — because there weren’t sites big enough. There’s no guarantee that any of those 65 prospects would have come to Lynchburg, but, as hockey great Wayne Gretzky famously said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” These are 65 shots that Lynchburg couldn’t take.
If you want the Lynchburg economy to grow faster, one big solution — by no means the only one, but certainly a big one — is to create more of those large sites. Conveniently, there’s a group leading the push to do just that. Once again, it’s the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance. If Lynchburg, Bedford and Campbell were to act on this suggestion to eliminate funding for the alliance, they’d be hobbling the effort to fix one of the region’s biggest economic shortcomings. If, say, an environmental group opposed the quest for large sites because that would develop land that should remain undeveloped, I’d understand the political motives behind that. I don’t understand it when a conservative opposes something that could lead to more private sector growth.
Certainly not all conservatives do. Knight’s email references a letter from Del. Wendell Walker, R-Lynchburg. In June, he sent a letter to the Bedford County Board of Supervisors urging support for the alliance. “In Richmond, I’ve had the opportunity to work with many economic development organizations and chambers of commerce,” he wrote. “By far, the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance sets the standard for regional economic development, and the strength of their relationship, particularly with Bedford County, is a model for the Commonwealth.”
The ancient Greeks coined the phrase “the gods help those who help themselves.” The same holds true for economic development. The state likes to see localities that work together and have robust regional economic development programs, because economies don’t stop at the city limits or the county line, they are regional in nature. And while governors always like to fly in to claim credit for big jobs announcements, the reality is that most of the work on those is done behind the scenes at the local and regional levels — by local governments and by groups such as the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance. If Lynchburg, Bedford and Campbell were to somehow act on this suggestion to pull funding from the region’s economic development group, that would send a pretty clear signal that the Lynchburg metro isn’t particularly interested in seeing stronger economic growth, after all. Don’t count on any federal tech hub designation then. Don’t count on the state to swoop in, either. It’s primarily up to economic regions to chart their own destiny. And while I’m generally a big fan of the free market, the marketplace on its own isn’t going to magically create the key conditions for economic growth — those large sites, a talented workforce, those applications for major federal funding to boost Lynchburg’s existing nuclear businesses.
Those who want to defund the region’s main economic development group may think they’re scoring a political point that’s popular with their supporters but they are indirectly saying they’re content with Lynchburg having the slowest job growth of any metro in the state and a gross domestic product that is smaller today than it was a decade or so ago. If they want to cite our reporting that documents the region’s sluggish economy, have at it. The facts are the facts, as unpleasant as they sometimes may be. But I read all these statistics and conclude that perhaps the alliance needs more funding, not less.
Remember ‘In the Year 2525’?
Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, does. In his weekly newsletter, he manages to name-check both Oliver Anthony of “Rich Men North of Richmond” fame as well as the spooky 1969 hit by the one-hit wonder pop duo Zager and Evans. I have details, as well as a closer look at The Roanoke College Poll, in this week’s edition of West of the Capital, our weekly political newsletter. Not on the list? You can sign up for this and any of our other free newsletters here. We also have a weekly weather newsletter by weather journalist Kevin Myatt and a weekly events calendar newsletter.