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Officials discuss state of economy

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At local briefing, state commerce secretary says Virginia needs to be globally competitive

By Shannon Watkins

Virginia Secretary of Commerce and Trade Maurice Jones told a gathering of local leaders economic development officials last week that, while the U.S. as a whole has generated more jobs than were lost in the recession, Virginia has yet to recoup its losses in employment.

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Jones was keynote speaker at the Blue Ridge Crossroads Economic Development Authority’s annual Regional Economic Development Briefing on May 29 at the Crossroads Institute in Galax.

Representatives of regional businesses and local elected officials attended the event.

Jones said that, as of April, Virginia had 122,000 fewer jobs than before the recession.

According to Jones, the biggest employer in Virginia is the federal government, especially the Department of Defense. It, along with healthcare and corporate giants like Food Lion and Walmart, are responsible for much of Virginia’s employment.

He said that growing the private sector was important for the creation of jobs in the commonwealth.

The commerce secretary said the five things that will help grow a strong private sector in Virginia are improving infrastructure, picking strategic sectors to expand, developing and maintaining talent, rewarding entrepreneurism and aggressively creating a business-friendly climate.

“Were not just competing with North Carolina and Tennessee and Kentucky,” he said. “We’re competing with Mexico.” Jones considered both roads and internet access to be part of the infrastructure.

“Twenty-five percent of rural Virginia, at best, has broadband access,” he said. He spoke of a small business owner who can’t bill customers on the Internet because not enough of them are able to get online. “He’s losing business due to our lack of access to broadband.”

Jones also said that keeping skilled talent was a necessity for competing and cited that manufacturing was one sector worthy of expansion, especially given that there are experienced manufacturing workers already available in the state.

As for current circumstances, Jones said that Virginia, with few regulations and a relatively low business tax, is ranked as the sixth-friendliest in the union for businesses, but, “We’re not the most friendly.”

Jones advised that the state should continue to court success and not let up its efforts. “We should always go after the big fish,” he said. “This is a contact sport that we are in. We will continue on this journey and get even better.”

Making Progress

BRCEDA Regional Director Ken McFayden delivered the briefing.

He shared information about progress BRCEDA has made since the last annual gathering, including the fact that the organization will now be in charge of the Southwest Virginia Farmer’s Market, which was formerly under Carroll County’s oversight since 1992.

“This is a tremendous asset, not only to our immediate region of Carroll-Grayson-Galax, but to the commonwealth and to Southwest Virginia,” he said. “We are very excited about what we’re embarking upon with the market.”

While Grayson County does not have a designation as an enterprise zone — Carroll County and Galax each have their own — it is seeking one this year; but McFadyen advised that it would make more sense for the Twin Counties area to seek one as a whole.

BRCEDA had been working with Fries to develop sites around the town, including the old firehouse, with the aim of economic revitalization through business recruitment.

Since 2006, BRCEDA has hosted the Small Business Development Center at Crossroads, and McFayden said it has been strong and active since then.

“There are 29 small business development centers in Virginia,” he informed the audience. “We like to brag — and as Will Rodgers once said, ‘It isn’t bragging if it’s the truth’ — that we are one of the best, if not the best, at delivering services to small businesses in the commonwealth. We seek to be there for the entire business planning process.”

He praised the center’s employees and their work with clients. “We’re a shade above the average,” he said.

McFayden then turned to Wildwood Commerce Park, a regional economic development effort in Carroll County, saying that one of its greatest assets is interstate access, as well as its proximity to Twin County Regional Airport.

He advised of the funding the park has received and thanked members of the Virginia Tobacco Commission who were present for their help.

He said that, to date, the location has attracted $17 million in grants and investments.

“We’ve constructed 12 miles of fiber since last summer,” he said of physical work done for the site. “We’re now constructing a 2,000-foot service road to the site, and have run several thousand feet of water and sewer... by the end of this summer, we will have water, sewer and fiber run to this site. We will deliver natural gas to the site in 2015.”

State government officials visit Wildwood

Maurice Jones, Virginia’s Secretary of Commerce and Trade, and Virginia Lt. Governor Ralph S. Northam paid a visit to Wildwood Commerce Park in Carroll County on May 29.
The group huddled under umbrellas as it discussed the progress that has been made since the project began.
Wildwood is a collaborative project among Carroll and Grayson counties and the city of Galax through the Blue Ridge Crossroads Economic Development Authority (BRCEDA). Located just off Interstate 77’s Exit 19, the site includes 273 acres.
With construction of utilities scheduled for completion this year, the group hopes to attract a large commercial business to help the region’s economic development.
“The partnership [among the counties] has provided a lot of synergy. We believe that anything can happen here,” said BRCEDA director Ken McFadyen.
With the site located within Virginia Enterprise and HUB zones, and within the Virginia Tobacco Region, the group believes that there are a number of potential businesses that could benefit from building in Wildwood, including agricultural and food products processing, information technology, advanced wood and fabric products manufacturing, components manufacturing, and distribution and logistics.
“We have a workforce of about 10,000 people in manufacturing furniture and textiles… and Grayson was basically a cut and sew [textiles] county at one time… so the skill sets are there,” McFadyen said.
Agriculture has also proven to be a cash crop for the county, McFadyen noted, naming the Southwest Virginia Farmers Market and Virginia Produce, both of which have been particularly successful.
When asked about the level of completion, the group explained that all of the public utilities — water, wastewater, fiber — and an access road were scheduled for completion this year.
Appalachian Electric Power (AEP) scheduled extension of distribution improvements to provide a 34.5kV alternate feed circuit during the 2013-2014 time period, according to BRCEDA’s website.
Carroll is the only county in the state operating its own natural gas distribution system. McFadyen told the visitors that natural gas will be fielded into Wildwood for consumption in 2015.
“About a year and a half ago, a high profile marketing company looked at this site, which really shows [the site’s potential]. We really want the food industries to know about this place,” said Liz Povar of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership.
Someone asked McFadyen if there was a plan to install company “shells” on the property. “No,” he replied. “With a site this large, it will need to be more customized.”
Galax City Manager Keith Barker commented that the city had invested in the project for the sake of job creation.
“What has been your biggest challenge so far?” asked Jones.
McFadyen replied that, if he had to do anything differently, that he would have invested in a feasibility analysis earlier on, to determine what kind of business the area could attract. “Of course, we know this now. But it would have been nice to have known earlier,” he admitted.
The concept of the park has existed for a long time. McFadyen shared that Carroll County Administrator Gary Larrowe found concept drawings for the site that dated back to 1999.
“There used to be a two-room schoolhouse in this area a long time ago, which Wildwood was named for,” Larrowe said.
“What is our competition?” someone else asked.
“North Carolina,” said McFadyen.
Previously, BRCEDA shared that a prospective business with a potential return of 450 jobs and $100 million in private investment was interested in Wildwood. However, the authority announced in December 2013 that the company had chosen to build in another state.
With the level of interest that has already been shown in the property, BRCEDA remains confident that another prospect will settle at Wildwood soon after infrastructure is completed. “As [Wildwood] becomes ready, we are going to move into very aggressive marketing,” McFadyen told the group.