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Hope despite hard times

Green shoots are showing as Southern Virginia rebuilds its economy

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Print this page by Elizabeth Parsons

For 25 years, Darla Main-Schneider worked for factories throughout the Eastern U.S. and saw one job after another disappear.  “I’ve done everything when it comes to manufacturing,” she says.  “Production manager, materials manager, buyer, planner; most of my positions have been eliminated due to production being shifted overseas, or because of the recession — middle-management always takes a hit.”

Main-Schneider’s most recent pink slip occurred in 2008, just three years after she had relocated from New Jersey to the Martinsville area to work for MasterBrand Cabinets.  Rather than move again in pursuit of another manufacturing job, the 53-year-old grandmother started a business. She retrained, courted investors and last year opened a bakery, Rising Sun Breads, in Martinsville, a city with the highest unemployment in Virginia.

Main-Schneider, an Iowa native, has put down roots in Martinsville, and she is fully invested in its future. “The fun part is it’s your own,” she says of her bakery.  “No one can walk in and say, ‘You know, we just don’t need you anymore. We’re downsizing.’”
Main-Schneider may be a “come-here” rather than a “from-here,” but her pluck and perseverance are authentic to Southern Virginia, a former tobacco and textile region along Route 58 near the North Carolina state line.  Like her, the region’s residents have lost many jobs to foreign competition, but they haven’t given up. “They are resilient, tenacious people,” says Jeremy Stratton, a Montana native who has been Danville’s economic development director since 2007. 

To the rest of the commonwealth, the region is synonymous with hard times. Martinsville’s unemployment rate, for example, was 20 percent in November, more than three times the state average of 6.4 percent.  But, unfortunately, high unemployment in the region is old news. The economy has been in transition since the 1990s when ripple effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement began a cascade of job losses.  In nearly every quarter since 1991, manufacturing employment has contracted in Southern Virginia for a total estimated loss of 46,000 jobs, according to Richmond-based Chmura Economics & Analytics. 

The recent recession added to the region’s economic distress. During the past two years, headlines chronicled the closing of the Brunswick Correctional Center in Brunswick County and the Corning plant in Danville, plus major layoffs at American of Martinsville, GSI Commerce, Stanley Furniture and Goodyear.  The closing of a Hanesbrand plant in neighboring Eden, N.C., in September 2008 also contributed to the region’s unemployment rate. Of the 720 Hanesbrand jobs lost, 40 percent were held by Martinsville-Henry County residents, says Kay Cassady, senior co-manager of the Workforce Career Center of Martinsville-Henry County. 

But looking past gloomy headlines, Southern Virginia has reasons for optimism.  Green shoots of a new economy are beginning to appear. As old employers are fading, new ones, including some based in foreign countries, are beginning to take their place.
In the past 30 months, for example, 11 new and expanding businesses have announced projects in Emporia and Greensville County. One of them is Oran Safety Glass, an Israel-based manufacturer of bulletproof glass used in military vehicles. It created 100 new jobs when it moved to the area in 2007 and added another 25 jobs in an expansion in 2008.  A shell building offered by the Emporia-Greensville Industrial Development Corp. “cut a year off construction” in setting up the plant, says Louis Michener, Oran’s vice president of U.S. operations.

Meanwhile, Danville has announced new businesses creating more than 5,600 jobs since 2004 (including more than 1,566 since February 2008).  Among the new arrivals are Swedwood, the furniture maker for Swedish retailer IKEA; Com.40, a Polish upholstery and mattress company that also supplies IKEA; and Lifebatt Inc. USA, the American subsidiary of a Taiwanese company that makes lithium ion batteries.  Following up on connections made through Lifebatt, Stratton recently returned from a trip to Taiwan where he talked to 10 companies about coming to the Danville-Pittsylvania County area. “We’re doing what we can to step up to the plate and start our own future,” he says.

In seeking business prospects, economic development officials in the region have targeted a mix of industries such as information technology, food and beverage, aerospace, automobile testing, plastics/polymers and pharmaceuticals/biotech — the hallmarks of a new economy.  The charms officials dangle include the region’s low cost of doing business, an eager work force and a modern, uncongested transportation system — a rare sight in some of the state’s urban areas. “I can be at the Richmond airport in an hour and five minutes,” notes Jack Davenport, executive director of the Emporia-Greensville Industrial Development Corp., which touts the area’s seven interchanges on Interstate 95. “It takes longer than that from some parts of Chesterfield County.”

In addition to quick access to large metro areas such as Richmond, Raleigh, Greensboro and Hampton Roads, one of the region’s strongest selling points is its quality of life.  In that area, Southern Virginia is distinguished by two assets: motorsports and lakes. 

The Martinsville International Speedway hosts two NASCAR Sprint circuit races each year while the nearby South Boson Speedway offers a slew of professional and amateur events. Virginia International Raceway in Halifax County near Danville hosts a variety of sports car and motorcycle races, which have attracted celebrity drivers like “Grey’s Anatomy” actor Patrick Dempsey.  In addition, the Lake Sugar Tree Motorsports Park in Henry County is a popular motor-cross venue.

Meanwhile, fishing and boating opp­ortunities are abundant at the region’s major manmade lakes.  They include:
• The highly popular 20,000-acre Smith Mountain Lake, which touches Pittsylvania County;
• The nearby 3,270-acre Leesville Lake in Pittsylvania;
• The relatively undisturbed, 3,000-acre Lake Philpott in Henry County;
• And Buggs Island Lake (known as Kerr Lake in North Carolina) and Lake Gaston, which cover a combined 70,000 acres along the state line and form a southern shoreline for Mecklenburg and Brunswick counties.

Many newcomers to the region, like retired businessman Wally Sayko, a Lake Gaston resident in Brunswick County, find the water an irresistible draw. “My son went to VMI, and I would come home [to Hampton Roads] taking the scenic route on 58,” he recalls. “Along the way, the lake would catch my eye. I fell in love with it.”

Southern Virginia also is the home to some unexpected culinary and cultural gems. Halifax County, for example, has two restaurants of national acclaim, Bistro1888 in South Boston and the Molasses Grill in Halifax, the county seat. Also, The Prizery, a performing arts center in South Boston, recently snagged the Arts Build Communities Rising Star Award from Virginians for the Arts, which recognizes up-and-coming arts organizations.

Businesswoman Lauretta Richardson is excited by the formation of new groups in Brunswick County to promote tourist and historical attractions, such as its annual Brunswick stew festival and Fort Christiana, the site of a Colonial fortress built 1714.  Her family moved from suburban Richmond to a 260-year-old home in the county after buying land in the county more than 20 years ago to expand a nursery business. “This is a place where potential meets opportunity,” she says.

Perhaps the most prominent symbol of the change beginning to take place in Southern Virginia is Danville’s iconic “White Mill,” a 658,000-plus-square-foot building once owned by textile giant Dan River Inc.  Attracted by incentives from the city, state, Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission and the Danville Regional Foundation, a development group led by Gibbs International Inc. of Spartanburg, S.C., bought the vacant mill last year. Plans call for the mill to become a data center employing up to 400 workers.  “Four-hundred high-paying jobs, $400 million investment and saving a historic building,” as Delegate Danny Marshall summarized it last year. 

As White Mill is transformed, the face of manufacturing in Southern Virginia also is changing.  “People say it’s gone but it’s just transitioning,” explains Mike Sexton, executive director of the Halifax County Industrial Development Authority. “Manufacturing continues to be important for us.”

But modern manufacturing requires a different set of skills from the old factory jobs that have disappeared.  That is one reason that education and work-force training is playing a key role in the region’s emerging economy. 

Sexton points to the 40,000-square-foot planned addition to the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center in South Boston dedicated to digital art and manufacturing design, as one example of the region’s eagerness to meet modern industrial needs.

Another example is in Emporia-Greensville County where the first two phases of the Southern Virginia Workforce Center have been completed, providing classrooms and meeting facilities. The third phase will include three industrial labs for conducting certification courses in welding, plumbing, automotive maintenance and high-performance manufacturing.

Danville Community College’s 5-year-old Regional Center for Advanced Technology and Training also teaches workers new factory skills, but it also serves as recruiting tool.  It has helped the Danville-Pittsylvania area stand out in competing for foreign prospects.

Another plus for the region is the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research in Danville.  At the institute, a public-private partnership that also benefits from Tobacco Commission support, faculty and students from Virginia Tech, Averett University and Danville Community College conduct research in polymers, robotics and unmanned systems, motorsports engineering, and high-value horticulture and forestry. The institute’s presence provides ample evidence that the region is involved in high technology. “It’s a game changer,” says Stratton. 

The game changer for Darla Main-Schneider was her decision to find a new career after her latest job loss. “When I looked at career change, I thought to myself, ‘What can I bring to my community; what new skills can I bring to a community that has already been hard hit?’” she recalls. 

Main-Schneider decided to start a bakery. She attended the French Culinary Institute in New York and signed up for business classes through the FastTrac New Venture program offered by the Martinsville-Henry County Small and Minority Business Development Division. An award-winning business plan written for class was used to recruit investors.

Rising Sun Breads, which produces handcrafted breads, began operating last spring and held its grand opening in October. The business already is operating in the black and will hire two employees this month. “People call me the ‘bread lady,’ and I’m fine with that,” Main-Schneider says.

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