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The Blue Ridge Crossroads Economic Development Authority (BRCEDA) held its regional economic development briefing on Tuesday at Crossroads Institute, where members gave a progress update on several regional initiatives and projects in Carroll County, Grayson County and the City of Galax.
BRCEDA had several positive announcements, including a new investor for Wildwood Commerce Park, a regional industrial site on Virginia 620, off I-77’s Exit 19 in Carroll County. Appalachian Power Co. recently signed on with an investment of nearly $4 million to get the site ready for prospective companies.
BRCEDA Regional Director Ken McFadyen promised good news as he began a review of the organization’s progress so far this year. “We have a lot of great opportunities to brag about,” he said.
He began by referring to BRCEDA’s mission statement, which is “to enhance the economic base for the member localities by developing, owning and operating one or more facilities on a cooperative basis.”
He explained that the projects operated under BRCEDA are arranged into four different categories: sustainable agriculture, economic revitalization, broadband infrastructure and industrial development.
McFadyen built up to BRCEDA’s most important project to date: Wildwood Commerce Park. This area encompasses 115 developable acres — with an additional 50-acre potential — that is being prepared as a host for a large company prospect.
BRCEDA confirmed that a company has already shown interest in this area, and the closing of that deal would mean 450 new jobs and $100 million in private investment to the Twin Counties.
“This is a bold project, and one that relies on the relationship with public economic development partners,” said McFadyen.
He confirmed to the audience that the authority is still waiting on this prospect to make a decision.
However, he did have a new announcement that promises to sweeten the deal for prospective companies: APCo will invest in infrastructure totaling $3.92 million.
The new investment will be used to purchase and install circuits to bring electricity to the property. This is one of the essential steps in making the area “shovel ready” for a company.
“These companies, they move fast,” McFadyen explained, noting that the more that is already done to prepare Wildwood for construction, the more appealing it is going to look to any prospect.
McFadyen confirmed that this new project is scheduled for completion in December 2014. He extended his thanks to APCo for its support. “This is huge, and we can’t over-emphasize that,” he said.
McFadyen reminded the audience that Carroll, Grayson and Galax equally share the property tax revenues within the 273 acres when the first company locates to Wildwood, and will share equitably in the increased property tax base of the surrounding 420 acres as a result of the park’s development.
Other BRCEDA Projects
McFadyen also highlighted several other BRCEDA projects.
Beginning with the sustainable agriculture programs, he explained that their purpose is to find economic opportunity through local agriculture.
There are three different projects that fall under this category: the Southwest Virginia Farmers Market, Grayson Natural Foods and a new food commission.
The farmers market, which has been in business since 1992, offers an opportunity to sell a great volume of produce, McFadyen said. Its goal has been to regionalize the market to an even greater degree than it already is.
“The market has quite an efficient operation, and we are excited about the opportunity to work with Carroll County on that."
McFadyen then clicked his presentation over to a photo of a refrigeration truck that was awarded to Grayson LandCare by the Virginia Tobacco Commission. This truck is fully equipped to help the company transport their natural grass-fed beef to market.
BRCEDA has also set out to form a new food commission, and will meet with state representatives in August to discuss the project further.
“We will be talking about what we can do as a region, and what Virginia can do as a commonwealth to make food a prominent and leading sector in Virginia’s economy,” said McFadyen.
Moving on to broadband infrastructure, McFadyen talked about the status of The Wired Road, a project that began in response to local areas that were suffering from a lack of connectivity.
“We hear about connectivity everywhere. It’s as common as streets, as common as water,” McFadyen said, but there were several areas in the Twin Counties that had limited or even no access to high-speed internet.
“Through the leadership of many of the people in this room, including Mike Maynard, we created the Wired Road broadband authority organization under the Virginia Wireless Authorities Act,” he said.
(Maynard, former chairman of BRCEDA and a Grayson County supervisor, passed away last month.)
The Wired Road has built a complex network over the last five to six years, with over 700 registered users accessing nine different stations at their computing center in Grayson County.
In closing, McFadyen shared the results of a survey of the 216,000 people who live within a 45-minute commute from Wildwood. Of this number, 7.73 percent are unemployed, and 12.43 percent are underemployed, meaning they are employed but do not make enough to support themselves.
These people, he explained, are the ones that this project will reach out to and assist. “I’m taking this one from the Book of Maynard,” McFadyen said in closing, “Within the problem of unemployment, we have the opportunity for economic development.”
Blue Ridge Crossroads SBDC Update
Amanda Archer, director of the Blue Ridge Crossroads Small Business Development Center (SBDC), delivered a progress report covering the center’s actions from 2012 through this year.
According to her data, the SBDC met with 126 individual clients last year. Those meetings resulted in the openings and expansions of 18 local businesses, the creation and retention of 50 jobs, and a total capital investment of $1.14 million.
Twenty-four of these clients were seen as a result of the Small Business Jobs Act, which awarded $30,000 last year to help SBDC deliver counseling services in Grayson County. This resulted in 27 clients, three business openings and expansions, four funded businesses and the creation and retention of 18 full-time equivalent jobs.
The center assisted in accessing $768,880 in funding, which resulted in a total $580,000 capital investment.
According to Archer, SBDC saw $16 for every $1 given to the organization last year.
Numbers appear to be climbing this year. In six months, the center staff met with 64 clients, funded nine businesses and created and retained 17 jobs in the community. So far, is has acquired $158,500 in capital.
“We often get asked about what types of businesses we work with,” Archer said. At this time, their clients are made up of 35 percent retail businesses; 52 percent service businesses; and 13 percent manufacturing, tourism and other businesses.
“We are continuing with our Jobs Act [work] to deliver more services to Grayson county. As you all know, the new prison will open in October, and we foresee this as an opportunity to prepare small businesses.”
Archer explained that a series of workshops will be offered at the Historic 1908 Courthouse in Independence, beginning in August. Classes will help prepare these businesses to handle the population surge that is expected in that area due to the River North Correctional Center’s opening.
As of right now, Archer pointed out that the SBDC has estimated an accumulation of up to $5.77 million for clients, made up of prospective loans, personal equity and grants; along with the potential creation and retention of 130 jobs in this area.
Archer moved to a slide with a photo of Tammy Sawyers, owner of The Personal Touch Florist in downtown Galax. “This is to give a face to some of what we do,” she said.
“Tammy opened her shop on February 7, 2012, and received a $25,000 loan from People Incorporated for equipment and inventory. We keep in contact with her as much as we possibly can, and she recently told us that she expects this year’s sales to be 60 percent higher than last year.”
Archer clicked on to the next slide, showing a picture of one of the flower arrangements that now decorate the light poles along downtown Galax. “Here is an example of the work she does,” she said, then gestured towards a table at the front of the conference room, decorated with a flower arrangement and photos of Maynard.
“She also provided this arrangement in memory of Mike,” Archer said.
Virginia Economic Development Partnership
Martin Briley, president and CEO of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, the event’s keynote speaker, explained that, in light of a changing economy and a higher competition from other areas, strength needs to be built in Virginia’s private sectors.
He highlighted a concern that he has commonly heard from the community. “When we spend taxpayer dollars that could be used for the real problems of today, we have to be good for it,” he said. “We have been asked why we’re handing money to corporations instead of seeing to the community needs.”
Briley explained that, for every dollar invested in these corporations the Virginia Economic Development Partnership sees a $9.50 profit.
“You may have a dollar today to invest in a child care center, but if you invest with us, we will give you money back to invest in 10 child care centers.”
Briley emphasized the importance of creating a diverse and strong series of strategies to create a stronger economy, and moving from a defensive to an offensive strategy to win against the surrounding competition.
“Virginia has always survived, and we can do it again by addressing and understanding what’s coming.”
“This has become an annual event for us,” said David Hutchins, vice chairman of BRCEDA. “In past years, it’s been a very joyous and festive event to a large degree, because of the chair who is not with us now.”
Hutchins referred to Maynard, who passed away on June 28.
Hutchins introduced Grayson County Administrator Jonathan Sweet, who said a few words about Maynard. “You could always count on his unique sense of humor,” he said.
In speaking about his death at a previous event, Sweet recalled saying that Grayson County would experience a great loss. “I was quickly corrected,” he remembered. “The entire region — Carroll, Grayson and Galax — has lost a great public servant, a great leader and a great friend.
“It is my humble opinion that we should look to honor Mike by celebrating this regional partnership. He had so much to do with its creation and maturation, and in continuing its success, we thank him,” said Sweet.
“I know that Mike would tell us, if he were here, to dry our eyes, roll up our sleeves and continue the work to build opportunity for this region.”