Roanoke and New River valleys saw growth and retraction in 2012March 01, 2013 6:00 AM
by Jenny Kincaid Boone
Photo by Mark Rhodes
Ply Gem Windows will invest $6 million to $7 million in its Rocky Mount facility, hiring 200 more employees by the end of 2014.
The country’s largest online retailer of outdoor gear opens a new fulfillment center in Montgomery County, with the promise of 200 jobs.
In Franklin County, an existing window and door manufacturer expands, hoping to take advantage of a slowly improving real estate market.
Meanwhile, a military supplier of night-vision goggles cuts 201 jobs and a national craft beer brewer snubs Southwest Virginia for a North Carolina hub.
The Roanoke and New River Valley economies experienced a mixed bag of growth and retraction in 2012. While some companies, such as Backcountry.com are making bold moves in the region with new facilities and jobs, economic and industry challenges have forced others to pull back or to shutter operations altogether.
Still, economic development officials say the economy is improving gradually in the aftermath of The Great Recession.
Businesses spent $50 million in the Roanoke Valley last year on real estate and equipment, down slightly from $52 million in 2011, according to the Roanoke Regional Partnership, an organization that markets the region.
The economy is “on the upswing,” says Beth Doughty, the partnership’s executive director. During the tough years of the recession from 2007 to 2010, the partnership announced only 100 to 200 new jobs annually, she says. It announced 549 new jobs in 2012, though that figure does not represent all new employment in the area.
The majority of economic development projects announced last year involved manufacturers, including Ply Gem Windows, a Rocky Mount company that makes window and door products. It will invest $6 million to $7 million in its facility and hire 200 more employees by the end of 2014, for a total of 1,100.
Ply Gem says it’s taking advantage of an improving housing market with the addition of new equipment, information technology and extrusion tooling. New jobs include assemblers, technicians, IT support and engineers, according to a news release.
Its expansion is funded partly by grants from Franklin County, Rocky Mount and the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission, which promotes economic development in the state’s formerly tobacco-dependent communities.
A $60,000 state grant is helping to fuel an expansion at Donnie Montgomery’s Franklin County dairy. Homestead Creamery sells milk, ice cream and butter at grocery stores and operates a popular home delivery business.
In December, Montgomery, president of Homestead Creamery, said it would add cheese and yogurt to its retail lineup while selling more produce from the region’s farms.
“We’ve had some steady growth,” Montgomery says. “By adding cheese and yogurt, it fits our market well.”
The company’s $1.1 million expansion includes $60,000 from the Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development Fund, which offers incentives to companies that use Virginia’s agricultural and forestry products. Homestead Creamery has 35 employees, and it will add 20 jobs in the next three years.
Much of the Roanoke Valley’s economic growth in the past year involved small-scale job additions and expansions, says Jill Loope, acting economic development director for Roanoke County.
The number of people unemployed in the Roanoke metropolitan statistical area declined in November 2012, to 5.6 percent, from 6.1 percent in November 2011, according to the Virginia Employment Commission.
Still, several Roanoke Valley companies shed significant jobs in the past year. Hanover Direct, a mail-order business, closed its Roanoke County distribution center last year, eliminating 189 jobs, according to a WARN notice filed with the Virginia Workforce Network. Roanoke County is marketing this vacant 650,000-square-foot building.
Also, ITT Exelis, a manufacturer of night-vision goggles and related gear for the U.S. armed forces, laid off 201 employees at its Roanoke County facility in October. Decreases in the country’s combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan forced ITT to reduce its work force, says spokeswoman Mary Dudley.
ITT was one of the county’s three largest private employers with up to 999 employees. Now, it employs about 705 people, Dudley says.
Also, a new owner purchased Keagy Village, a 15-acre retail center in Roanoke County, last year, though it is too early to gauge its future. Ry Winston, a Charlotte, N.C., real estate developer and Roanoke native, bought the troubled shopping center on Route 419. It has struggled to land retailers since it opened in 2008, and it lacks an anchor tenant and houses only three retailers.
Winston says he’s confident that now is a stronger time economically to attract retailers. He already has spoken with several store and restaurant prospects.
Aside from layoffs, 2012 began with disappointing news. California-based Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. chose Asheville, N.C., for its East Coast headquarters, after Roanoke County wooed the craft beer giant for at least a year. “That was rather painful to lose,” Loope says. “At the end of the day, it was about camaraderie with the brewing industry. They were embraced by similar brewers in the Asheville area.”
Roanoke County wants to capitalize on the missed opportunity by marketing its water resources to breweries and similar businesses considering future expansion, Loope says. She declined to name specific companies. “It’s clearly an opportunity to promote ourselves,” she says.
New River Valley
Forbes Magazine ranked this region as the No. 5 best small city for jobs in 2012.
Area Development magazine named it one of the top 100 leading locations for business growth.
Homes.com chose the locality as the No. 1 place to raise a family, citing economic opportunities as a major attraction.
The New River Valley is a model area for creating jobs and luring new companies in the past year, at least according to recent accolades and positive job figures. For the past two years, job growth has picked up across the region, while unemployment has dropped, despite a challenging global economy. Unemployment was 5.4 percent for the Blacksburg-Christiansburg-Radford MSA last November, down from 5.8 percent in November 2011, according to the Virginia Employment Commission.
The Dish Network Corp.’s Christiansburg call center is among the hiring leaders, with the addition of 200 full-time employees last fall, ahead of busy television seasons.
The region’s other major wins include the opening of Backcountry.com’s 314,000-square-foot distribution center last August in Christiansburg. The online retailer will hire 200 employees in a two-year span.
Many smaller projects also characterize the locality’s economic development story. Inorganic Ventures, a manufacturer of certified reference materials used for measuring heavy metals and other products, expanded its Christiansburg facility by 20,000 square feet last year. Also, it hired six new employees to fuel the growth, and it will hire more this year, says Christopher Gaines, the company’s vice president of operations. It employs about 50.
Growing demand for the company’s calibrated instruments from pharmaceutical firms and the mining industry, notes Gaines, sparked the $1.3 million investment.
Aeroprobe Corp., which manufactures instruments that capture air flow data for several industries including the automotive and wind turbine sectors, will invest $5.3 million in the next five years for a new 20,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Christiansburg’s Falling Branch Corporate Park.
In addition, social media company Heyo plans to spend $100,000 for a new Blacksburg location and add 50 jobs.
A veil of uncertainty has even lifted for a troubled, high-profile project in Blacksburg. New owners say they will build an entertainment complex at the struggling First & Main retail center. Plans include a theater with IMAX technology, a bowling alley, restaurant and arcade. Half of the stores and restaurants have closed at this 275,000-square-foot, open-air shopping center since it opened at the height of the recession.
Further southwest in Wise County, Dominion’s Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center, a 585- megawatt power station, began operating in July. The $1.8 billion center will generate $440 million annually in tax revenues and benefits for the county, reports a Virginia Tech economic impact study.
Business growth and investments are rising as a result of a strong talent pool from nearby universities and success through the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center, a research and science park, says Aric Bopp, executive director of the New River Valley Economic Development Alliance.
Brian Hamilton, Montgomery County’s economic development director, also credits the region’s low cost of living, outdoors amenities and a 15-minute or less commute to work. Those are amenities that draw both employees and employers.
Major employers by number of jobs
Carilion Clinic, Roanoke, 11,317 jobs
Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, 10,000+
HCA Virginia Health System, Throughout region, , 1,000-2,999 jobs
Kroger, Throughout region, , 1,000-2,999 jobs
Wells Fargo Bank, Throughout region, , 1,000-2,999 jobs
Advance Auto Parts, Roanoke, 1,000-2,999 jobs
Radford University, Radford, 1,500-2,499
Allstate Insurance Co., Throughout region, , 1,000-2,999 jobs
Ply Gem Windows, Rocky Mount, 900-1,000 jobs
Celanese Acetate, Giles County, 600-999
Sources: Virginia Employment Commission, New River Valley Economic Development Alliance, Virginia Economic Development Partnership
Southwest Virginia’s recent deals
Ply Gem Windows, Rocky Mount, 200 jobs
Backcountry.com, Christiansburg, 200 jobs
Dish Network Corp., Montgomery County, 200 jobs
Virginia Transformer Corp., Roanoke, 100 jobs
Phoenix Packaging Operations LLC, Pulaski County, 100 jobs
John C. Nordt Co., Roanoke, 79 jobs
Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center, Wise County, 75 jobs
Advance Auto Parts, Roanoke, 75 jobs
GE Energy, Salem, 60 jobs
Balchem Corp., Alleghany County, 55 jobs
Source: Virginia Economic Development Partnership
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