A big upswing in interest

Southern Virginia is getting more attention from foreign companies

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Linda Green photo by Steven Mantilla

In the first six months of the current fiscal year — July 1 through Dec. 31, 2017 — economic development project activity more than doubled in the Southern region.

“We have seen a big upswing in the number of prospect visits,” says Linda Green, executive director of the Southern Virginia Regional Alliance, which covers a region stretching along the North Carolina line from Patrick through Halifax counties. “We’re seeing more mature projects where the average wage is higher.”

Last year was a mix of expansions and new leads for the region. Its biggest win was the United Kingdom-based Unison, which will invest $5.2 million and create 35 jobs within three years. Landing the deal was a joint effort by the alliance, Danville and Pittsylvania County.

Expansions in the region include Intertape Polymer Group in Pittsylvania with a $7 million project that will create jobs for an additional 15 employees. Halifax County saw the expansion of Grand Springs, a water producer, with an $800,000 investment that is expected to create 28 jobs.

The region also is seeing a growing number of international investments. “We have companies from Asia, Europe, Canada and Mexico,” Green says. “We’re also seeing diversification as well as growth in small and large industries.”

The success of existing companies often attracts new businesses to the area. “When existing companies are happy and growing, it’s the best image that you could depict for incoming industries,” Green says.

The region also has looked at supply-chain needs for existing industries while seeking out potential new suppliers. “Our local, existing businesses are more cognizant about telling us what supply-chain companies are important to them,” Green says.

Prospect-ready sites
One of the challenges facing the region is making sure sites and buildings are ready for prospects. “When we are contacted by a company or site consultant, they have already scouted out an area,” Green says. “They expect immediate results when they get here because they are ready to make hard decisions. Five years ago that might not have been the case. Timelines are significantly shorter.”

A strongpoint for the region is its skilled machining programs. “We have a large pipeline feeding into Danville Community College and Patrick Henry Community College for people getting industry recognized credentials,” Green says.

Last year was a promising year for Danville, officials say. “We had more activity and more inquiries than we had in several years,” says Linwood Wright, a consultant to Danville’s office of economic development.

Sixty-five upscale market-rate apartments with rents from around $800 to $1,250 became available in the city’s downtown River District. “For Danville, that is pretty darn good,” Wright says. “Twenty-seven million dollars of public funds generated about $130 million of private investment in the River District last year.”

New in the River District are Ballad Brewery, a craft brewery that opened last year, and a craft distillery, Dry Fork Fruit Distiller. “The distillery will probably open this April,” Wright says. “They will sell fruit-flavored whiskeys. Their products are now sold in Virginia and West Virginia ABC stores.”

The River District Tower, a more than $26 million project providing commercial and professional space, is now open. Originally developed  by Dan River Inc., the building was about “to be demolished,” says Wright.

Many companies last year moved forward with previously announced plans. Range Rover manufacturer Overfinch has started working on vehicles. The company invested $8 million in establishing its manufacturing operation in Danville, hiring 41 employees.

Kyocera SGS Tech Hub, a subsidiary of Kyocera SGS Precision Tools, is building an approximately 30,000-square-foot facility in Cyber Park. The company is investing $9.5 million and plans to hire 35 employees. Completion is expected this May.

A 3,500-acre industrial park, Berry Hill in Pittsylvania County, is starting to take shape. The park is designed to attract large, advanced-manufacturing prospects. “We have a couple of live prospects that have not been announced,” Wright says.

Advanced manufacturing is just one of the region’s economic development targets. It is also recruiting technology firms and companies from around the globe. “Right now, we are working on a project with headquarters based in India,” Wright says.

South Boston hotel
Last year South Boston received a $475,000  Industrial Revitalization Fund grant to renovate the John Randolph Hotel. The downtown building had been vacant for about 20 years. The town also received a $600,000 Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission grant for remodeling the building.

Built in 1929, the revamped hotel will include a restaurant and 27 guest rooms as well as a rooftop bar. Renovations are estimated at $8 million.

Last year, Martinsville-Henry County saw $22.9 million in capital investment that promised the creation of 147 jobs. “It was another consistent year,” says Mark Heath, president and CEO of the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp. “Over the last five to six years, it has been fairly consistent in terms of jobs, tax base and deals. We are thankful for that.”

Bassett Furniture last year completed a $1.5 million expansion that is expected to add 22 employees during the next few years. Eastman Chemical Co. likewise invested $11.7 million in expanding its Henry County manufacturing operation.

Canadian sliding glass door manufacturer Novatech became operational last year and is expected to create 50 jobs.

More international companies are looking at the area “because they need to be in the North American market. They need a U.S. presence,” Heath says. “They feel like this is an excellent place to start up.”

It’s not easy for a foreign company to come to the U.S. and “start from scratch,” he adds. “We have learned how to help them navigate through that. We have had three of these types of projects in the last three to four years.”

Training center
Last year also saw the beginning of development of the Commonwealth Centre for Advanced Training at the Commonwealth Crossing Business Centre industrial park. The training center will provide potential prospects a site for specialized workforce training. Construction on the 25,889-square-foot, $13 million project is expected to take 18 months to complete.

“We are competing in a big world,” Heath says, noting the four states that he competes with the most for projects are Tennessee, Georgia and North and South Carolina.

“Our incentive packages are not competing with other states. Our total tax burden on industry is not good,” Heath says. “Virginia is getting rated poorly in the national marketplace. These are things that need to be addressed going forward.”

Southern Virginia’s recent deals

Company Location #Jobs
Unison1 Pittsylvania County 35
Grand Springs Halifax County 28
Blue Ridge Fiberboard Danville 26
Bassett Furniture Henry County 22
Intertape Polymer Group 1 Pittsylvania County 15
Eastman Chemical Co. Henry County 15
Applied Felts 1 Henry County 15
1 Company has headquarters in another country.                  Source: Virginia Economic Development Partnership, 2017

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