Danville refuses to be debate talking point

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Print this page by Robert Powell
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Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson
at the Gene Haas Center for Integrated Machining.

In February, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, toured Danville’s workforce training facilities. The stops included the Gene Haas Center for Integrated Machining, the Regional Center for Advanced Technology and Training, and the precision machining programs at George Washington High School and Danville Community College.

In July, officials from Watertown, Wis., paid a visit to learn how Danville has transformed its downtown and former tobacco warehouse area into the River District with loft apartments, restaurants, a brewery and other new businesses.

These out-of-state visitors came to Danville because they saw it as a model of revitalization in an area that has been hard-hit by economic change in recent decades.

What they didn’t come to see, and probably would not recognize, is the Danville that Corey Stewart, Virginia’s Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate, described in a televised July debate with his opponent, incumbent Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine.

“It’s boarded up. People have left. Young people have left. The opiate crisis is completely out of control. The murder rate is way up. All crimes are way up. Suicides are up. It’s sad,” Stewart said, blaming the city’s demise on Democratic trade policies.

That assessment got a rise out of Lee Vogler, the city’s Republican vice mayor. In a tweet, he wrote, “We’d be happy to show you, or anyone, the great work that is being done by many ppl. We’re a great city. Not a talking point.”

Volger’s tweet was repeated in a Danville Register & Bee editorial titled, “Stewart’s Cheap Shot at Danville.” The editorial traced Stewart’s talking points to an article in Breitbart News, “Left for Dead in Danville: How Globalism is Killing Working Class America.”

“Has Danville undergone traumatic changes in the last 40 years? Absolutely,” the editorial said, noting the economic body blows the city suffered from the collapse of the U.S. textile industry and the demise of the tobacco warehouse auction system.

“What Stewart and the Breitbart writer don’t acknowledge, because it doesn’t fit their predetermined narrative, is that this city and its residents are far from dead,” the newspaper said. “Rather, we are re-examining ourselves, tallying our strengths and weaknesses and determining where we fit in in the 21st-century economy. And we are rebuilding and repurposing ourselves for that new economy.”

Joining the chorus a few days later was an op-ed piece in the Register & Bee by two Danville-area natives, Whitt Clement, a former Virginia secretary of transportation, and Todd Haymore, a former state secretary of commerce and trade.

They noted that, while still higher than the state’s jobless rate of 3.2 percent, Danville’s unemployment rate fell from 15.3 percent in 2009 to 5.4 percent in May.

Economic projects recruited to the Danville area since 2010, they said, have included investments of nearly $210 million, promising nearly 1,400 additional jobs.

“No, Danville is not boarded up, desperate and facing a bleak future,” Clement and Haymore said. “Danville is open, excited and ready to take on all the new opportunities the future will undoubtedly bring.”

There may be more at stake in this dispute than wounded civic pride. Site selection for economic development projects is a process of elimination. Companies looking to relocate or expand often want to move quickly in finding the right site and setting up production.  Unless they are challenged, disparaging comments about a potential location can cause it to be culled from the finalists.

Stewart followed up the debate with a news conference in Danville in late July. Facing a crowd of supporters and protesters, he acknowledged that the city has made progress in recent years but blamed the demise of the city’s textile industry on “unfair trade agreements that the Washington elite like Tim Kaine supported.”

The delegation from Watertown arrived just three days later. Their visit mirrored a similar trip Danville leaders made in 2010 to Greenville, S.C. Once called the “Textile Capital of the World,” the city has revamped its economy in recent decades, becoming, for example, the North American headquarters for Michelin. The Greenville trip led to the development of the River District, an area that has seen $150 million in private investment and $35 million in public spending in the past seven years.

Instead of heading south eight years ago, the Danville delegation could have headed north to a Rust Belt city that also is undergoing revival, Duluth, Minn.

Duluth’s port on Lake Superior once was the busiest port in terms of gross tonnage in the U.S., shipping ore from the Iron Range to plants in other states.

Beginning in the 1950s, however, industrial jobs began to vanish and the city’s population fell. In the 1980s, someone put a billboard on I-35 asking, “Will the last one leaving Duluth please turn out the light?”

Since then, the economy and the population have rebounded, thanks to recent developments in tourism, education, health care, aviation and advanced manufacturing.

In 2014, Outside magazine named the city No. 1 in its annual list of Best Places to Live in the U.S.

Stewart no doubt knows the city well. He was born there.

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