Reinventing a region

After losing three major industries and thousands of jobs, Southern Virginia is eager to get back to work.

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Print this page by Veronica Garabelli

Danville is looking in a new direction, literally. Take the new YMCA being built downtown. “People have noted it’s the first building in 100 years that’s oriented toward the river instead of away,” says Joe King, Danville’s city manager.

In fact, the Dan River is at the center of the city’s River District Development Project, which aims to revitalize downtown Danville and drive economic development in the area. So far, the project has yielded $100 million in investments from the public and private sectors. 

The initiative is one of several in Southern Virginia meant to attract and retain businesses. Southern Virginia took a hard hit when its textile, furniture and tobacco industries declined, in part because of overseas competition. Thousands of jobs were lost, but now the region is looking to move forward. The regional unemployment rate was 9.5 percent in November 2012 (that figure includes Patrick County, which is sometimes counted as part of Southwest Virginia).

Leigh Cockram, executive director of the Southern Virginia Regional Alliance, says Southern Virginia has done a good job of diversifying its industry sectors, which now include food processing, plastics and metals, among others. The organization was formed in 2011 to accelerate job growth and increase the tax base for the counties of Halifax, Henry, Patrick and Pittsylvania, along with the cities of Danville and Martinsville.

Danville’s once-barren downtown is transforming to a place where people want to live, work and play, officials say. “It’s not your grandfather’s Buick,” says Jeremy Stratton, Danville’s economic development director, of the city’s fresh image.

The River District Development Project includes Danville’s central business district, tobacco warehouse district and manufacturing area that dates back to the 1790s.  In addition to the YMCA, an IMAX theater, firehouse and apartment buildings are sprouting up in the River District. “It’s becoming a hot place to be, where you can start your business, live downtown and have some restaurants you can go to,” Stratton says.

In 2012, Southern Virginia recorded plans to create 2,142 jobs with total investments of $1.25 billion. That year the region had 35 announcements.
Power plant in Brunswick

A future big investment in Southern Virginia would be Dominion Virginia Power’s gas-fired power station in Brunswick County — if the company gets permission to build it. The utility company says it would invest $1.3 billion in the project, hire more than 600 workers at peak of construction and create 30 permanent positions. Dominion is waiting for approval from the State Corporation Commission for the project. The company also has applied for an air permit from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

Among Southern Virginia’s assets are two fiber-optic networks: the Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities Corp., which serves Southern and Southwest Virginia, and nDanville in Danville and part of Pittsylvania County (nDanville is partially connected to MBC).

The Mid-Atlantic Broadband network was key in bringing Microsoft Corp. to Southern Virginia. The computer software giant has a data center in Mecklenburg County and announced a $348 million expansion in January that would add 30 new jobs. 

Also drawn by the region’s fiber-optic networks, Northern Virginia-based Noblis, a nonprofit research corporation, established the Center for Applied High Performance Computing in Danville. The center houses a super computer that excels at pattern matching, scenario development, behavioral prediction, anomaly identification and graph analysis. It’s considered to be one of the nation’s most powerful computers.

Access to the networks also attracted Web Parts LLC, a software and services company, which moved from Guatemala to Danville last spring. The company is investing $10 million in the move and bringing 260 jobs to Danville.

Martinsville expansion
Martinsville, the city in the state with the highest unemployment, also will get a job boost. Faneuil Inc., a customer service solutions company that has been in Southern Virginia since 2010, is adding 100 jobs and investing $1 million. As part of the expansion, Faneuil Inc. will hire 100 people to support new client programs in the transportation, utility and health-care industries. It also has renovated 12,800 square feet of the clock tower building at Commonwealth Centre to support its growing business.

“Our plans are to continue to grow,” says Faneuil’s Chief Executive Officer Anna Van Buren. “That’s not the end of what we’ll do in Martinsville, for sure.”

The region also has had its setbacks. Mecklenburg County, for example, will lose about 200 jobs this year with the closing of Home Care Industries and layoffs from International Veneer Co.

Angie D. Kellett, Mecklenburg’s director of economic development, says one focus for the county is its growing tourism industry, particularly outdoor activities.  Buggs Island Lake and Lake Gaston, for example, are frequent sites for fishing tournaments. To help with tourism efforts, the county will be hiring a tourism coordinator, Kellett says.

One of the main concerns for companies locating in Southern Virginia is finding a skilled work force. The Southern Virginia Higher Education Center in South Boston and community colleges throughout the region are helping fill that need. SVHEC teams up with partner institutions to provide bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees.

In recent years, the center also has placed an emphasis on work-force development, says Hope Harris-Gayles, communications manager at SVHEC. SVHEC will meet with company representatives, assess their work-force needs and tailor a program specifically for them. “We are very flexible in that manner and tuned into the voice of the employers,” Harris-Gayles says. “That’s kind of what we put our emphasis on.”

SVHEC along with Riverstone’s Modeling & Simulation Center of Excellence and its National Center for Coatings Application, Research and Education in South Boston also are participating in the newly formed Manufacturing Skills Institute. The organization, announced at the end of last year, will provide advanced manufacturing education and training programs. 

Cockram says companies looking to locate an operation in Southern Virginia can get discouraged when they look at the region’s educational attainment rate, which measures the highest education level that individuals have reached. Nonetheless, she says, companies are impressed by the work-force programs and business initiatives that Southern Virginia has in place. As of the 2010 census, 66.5 percent of Southern Virginians above the age of 25 had graduated from high school. Out of that same demographic, 11 percent earned a bachelor’s degree or higher.

College is a resource
Ken Bowman, Pittsylvania County’s economic development director, says a large work-force resource in his area is Danville Community College. For example, when Swedwood, a furniture manufacturer for Ikea, came to Danville in 2008, it needed employees who could operate furniture-making equipment. The college came up with the curriculum and teaching-space, offering an operator’s certificate program, while Swedwood provided the equipment. Danville Community College also provides various trade certificates including precision machining, welding and industrial maintenance.

A drawback, Bowman says, is losing trained workers to other areas if there’s not an immediate job opening when students graduate. “It’s a catch-22,” Bowman says. “You push them to get trained, get the skills sets and everything but if there’s nothing there exactly when they graduate … they will go find work somewhere else.”

An important aspect of drawing companies, Bowman says, is having land that’s ready for construction. “Companies looking for locations, they don’t want to see a lot with a bunch of trees on it.” Instead, he says, they want a site that’s clear, has utilities in place, soil samples and permits completed.

The Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission helps localities develop prospective sites. The commission grants money to promote economic development in formerly tobacco dependent communities. “If we didn’t have that opportunity with the tobacco commission, it would be very difficult for us to borrow money and make those types of investments just based on speculation,” Bowman says.

While bringing new companies to the area is important, retaining them is, too. Bowman says Danville and Pittsylvania work closely to figure out what existing companies’ needs may be, and if there’s a way they can help. For example, in 2011 economic development officials in the Danville-Pittsylvania County area were able to help a company that was being courted by another state expand its building.

“Had we just forgotten about them, you lose control,” Bowman says. “They might have said, ‘We’re going to lay people off and go out of state.’” 

Major employers by number of jobs

The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Danville, 1,500-2,499 jobs

Pittsylvania County School Board, 1,000 -1,499 jobs

Danville City Public Schools, 1,000-1,499 jobs

City of Danville, 1,000-1,499 jobs

Danville Regional Medical Center, 1,000-1,499 jobs

Wal-Mart, 500-999 jobs

Nestle U.S.A. Inc., Danville , 500-999 jobs

Telvista Inc., Danville, 500-999 jobs

EBI LLC, Danville, 250-499 jobs

Danville Community College, 250-499 jobs

Source: Virginia Employment Commission, 2nd quarter, 2012
Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages (QCEW)

Southern Virginia’s recent deals

ICF International, Henry County, 539 jobs

United States Green Energy, Danville, 372 jobs

GOK International, Danville, 300 jobs

Web Parts LLC, Danville, 260 jobs

Faneuil, Inc., Martinsville, 250 jobs

EcomNets, Danville, 160 jobs

Monogram Snacks, Henry County, 150 jobs

Hybrid Vehicles of Danville Inc., Danville, 150 jobs

Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Danville, 143 jobs

Norhurst, Danville, 108 jobs

Source: Virginia Economic Development Partnership

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