The Virginia Inland Port in Warren County. Courtesy of Port of Virginia.
The Virginia Inland Port in Warren County. Courtesy of Port of Virginia.

There’s one thing that unites all the governors we’ve ever had: They all have loved nothing more than groundbreakings and ribbon-cuttings.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin now has the opportunity for one that could be the biggest of his governorship. 

The amendments to the two-year state budget that the legislature approved Wednesday call for $10 million for planning, engineering and site acquisition for an inland port somewhere between Wythe County and Bristol. (Washington County has offered to donate land at the Oak Park Center for Business and Industry, so that’s presumably the frontrunner.)

It doesn’t make sense for the state to put millions for planning, engineering and site acquisition unless it actually intends to build an inland port in Southwest Virginia, which is where the opportunity for Youngkin comes in. In December, he’ll present a two-year state budget — the first time he’ll have had the opportunity to craft one from scratch. If he were to include the money for actual construction — estimated earlier this year at $45 million but probably higher now, given inflation — he’d have the opportunity to dig a shovel into the ground before the end of his term.

That could be a legacy-defining event for Youngkin in Southwest Virginia. Inland ports themselves don’t employ many people — the state’s existing one in Front Royal employed just 13 at last report. However, over time, they generate an enormous amount of spinoff employment. The Virginia Port Authority estimates that there are now 8,500 jobs around Front Royal that are connected to the inland port, mostly warehousing and trucking operations.

There’s no guarantee, of course, that an inland port in Southwest Virginia would generate the same number of spinoff jobs — and it’s taken Front Royal three decades to get to that level. However, South Carolina officials say that after just five years, their inland port in Dillon, South Carolina, has helped create more than 1,000 jobs. Whether it’s 8,500 jobs over three decades or 1,000 over five years, it’s hard to imagine any other single project that might be so economically transformative in Southwest Virginia. Broader economic development initiatives could be, such as the effort to transform a coal-based economy in the state’s westernmost counties to a broader energy-based economy with a wider range of energy sources. That, though, is not something that can be accomplished through a single, gubernatorial edict. An inland port could be.

Perhaps I should stop and explain just what an inland port is. We all know the water variety at Hampton Roads. The purpose of inland ports is twofold. One goal is to relieve congestion at the water ports — cargo can be quickly offloaded there and shipped by rail to the inland port for further processing. Likewise, cargo can be assembled at the inland port and then shipped to the water port for quick loading. The second goal is to compete with other ports for business. Virginia’s inland port at Front Royal was situated there to try to divert business that otherwise might have been bound for Baltimore. An inland port in Southwest Virginia would be designed to help Virginia compete with southern ports, such as Wilmington, North Carolina, and Charleston, South Carolina.

Those in the Roanoke and New River valleys may remember an effort in the early 2000s to build a similar facility in the Elliston section of Montgomery County. Norfolk Southern was behind that project, which it called an intermodal freight terminal, not an inland port, but whatever differences there might be seem subtle, at best. Both involve lots of trucks and trains coming and going, which was something that alarmed neighbors, as well as Montgomery County, which didn’t want that kind of development in a rural part of the county. Montgomery County sued in 2008; the Virginia Supreme Court ruled against the county but by then the railroad had lost interest. 

Since then, there have been bills introduced to study inland ports either in the Danville area or the Roanoke Valley, but neither passed. In 2022, though, state Sen. Steve Newman, R-Bedford County, introduced a bill to study an inland port around Lynchburg. By the time the bill got through, it had been amended to add the Wythe County-to-Bristol area as a subject of study. That report came by saying an inland port probably wouldn’t work around Lynchburg — it’s too close to the water ports to make economic sense — but could in Southwest Virginia.

For those with a sharp eye, you’ll notice the state was never asked to study whether the state needed a second inland port or where a second inland port would make sense — in theory, a Roanoke Valley site might make more economic sense than one in Southwest. We don’t know, because that wasn’t studied. We just know that Lynchburg came up short and Southwest didn’t, and then the Southwest Virginia legislators made a big push for funding, which speaks to their legislative acumen in getting the region added to the study area in the first place. When people say that lawmaking is akin to sausage-making, this is what they mean. If you look too closely, you may lose your appetite. Then again, the land for a Roanoke Valley site is most likely in the Elliston area — at least that’s what Norfolk Southern concluded decades ago — and Montgomery County wasn’t keen on that then. Washington County supervisors have reacted in quite the opposite way, passing a resolution in favor of an inland port and offering land that’s near both Interstate 81 and rail lines (and also has already been designated as a development site, unlike that rural land in Montgomery County).

In any case, that’s all in the past. What matters now is the future: Will Youngkin come through with the money for this inland port?

Again, the actual port provides relatively little employment; the economic potential is entirely on the spinoff side. Still, if we’re taking the long view (and I generally like to take the long view), here’s what an inland port in Southwest Virginia might mean. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that over time it would generate the same 8,500 or so jobs that its counterpart in Warren County has. For comparison, that’s about the size of the 8,100-job Hyundai electric vehicle battery plant that almost picked the Southern Virginia Mega Site in Pittsylvania County — but ultimately went to Savannah, Georgia, because the site there was closer to being ready. (And not all of those jobs would have happened at once, either.)

Or maybe we should be more cautious, and go with the figure of 1,000 jobs over five years that South Carolina has seen around Dillon. How does that compare? According to the Virginia Economic Development Partnership’s jobs announcement database, which goes back to 1990, the biggest jobs announcement ever in the Bristol metro area was 550 jobs at a call center in 1996. If you broaden the search to all of Southwest Virginia, we pick up another 550 jobs in Dickenson County in 1997 — also at a call center. In October 2021, Blue Star Manufacturing announced it would build a medical glove factory in Wythe County that would employ 2,464 people, but it’s not there yet.

If — and again, there are no guarantees — an inland port in Southwest Virginia would someday generate 8,500 jobs, that would be a development of a transformative scale. Even if the figure were only the 1,000 jobs South Carolina has seen in five years, it would still be transformative.

I don’t mean to sound so rah-rah, but the numbers are what they are. The economic backdrop of an inland port in Southwest Virginia would be quite different from what it is in the northern Shenandoah Valley. Warren County has been gaining population since the 1960s. Its population has nearly doubled since the 1980s. The northern Shenandoah Valley is one of Virginia’s economic hotspots. Southwest Virginia is not. Every locality from Radford westward lost population during the past decade. Some of that is an older population aging out, but some of it is also people leaving to find jobs elsewhere. 

The per-capita income in Washington County is $30,771, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The website Zip Recruiter lists the average annual pay for a warehouse worker in Virginia at $37,258 and the average annual pay for a truck driver in Virginia at $56,074 (that figure being higher even than the median household income in Washington County, which is $54,737). Creating jobs in either of those sectors would raise income levels in Washington County — and that’s already the most affluent county in Southwest Virginia west of Pulaski County. If some of those workers lived next door in Smyth County, the impact would be more pronounced. The per capita income there is $24,633, the median household income $42,588.

This is why legislators from the region are so enthused about the prospect of an inland port. This is to them the equivalent of some other region landing a major employer.

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