New opportunities for Southwest Virginia

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by Bernie Niemeier

David Pryor, chancellor of the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, put it well by reminding the Lead Virginia Class of 2007 that Mr. Jefferson’s intent was to produce an educated citizenry, not just an educated Charlottesville. Wise County is a long way from Monticello, but U.Va.-Wise is part of a robust set of work-force development initiatives bringing Southwest Virginia to the forefront of the commonwealth’s economic growth.

Northrop Grumman and CGI are nearing completion of new facilities in Lebanon, adding about 750 information technology jobs to a regional economy long dominated by coal mining and tobacco farming. These facilities are expected to create new opportunities throughout the region.

Shannon Blevins, U.Va.-Wise’s economic development director, says the IT facilities will have an economic impact of $85 million in the next three to five years. While the buildings are not complete, CGI has already hired 200 employees who now work in temporary quarters in Russell County’s new government complex.

The Lead Virginia class also visited Wise County’s Powell River Project, a surface mining land reclamation site. This project, which involves Virginia Tech and the land’s owner, Penn Virginia Resource Partners LLC, is a site for coal mining, and gas and timber production, as well as long-term research on coal mining and the environment.

Former surface mining sites have been reclaimed as pastureland for beef cattle, creating new uses for land once too steep to be farmed. The reclaimed land is being reforested with hardwoods, fruit trees and white pine. Coal, the original resource, is non-renewable. When done well, reclamation results in renewable resources.

Agriculture in Southwest Virginia is also becoming more environmentally conscious. Appalachian Sustainable Development, a nonprofit organization based in Abingdon, is working with farmers to develop organic produce and ecologically-sound timbering operations in Virginia and Tennessee. Former tobacco farms are making the transition to organic produce under the trademarked name Appalachian Harvest.

Of course, tobacco continues to come up green. Like Southern Virginia, the Southwest region benefits in many ways from grants provided by the state’s tobacco commission. Among other resources, this money helped to provide the broadband access necessary to attract Northrop Grumman and CGI to Lebanon.

Private partners also are funding Southwest Virginia’s future. In addition to its new facility, Northrop Grumman has donated $1 million to U.Va.-Wise to fund a software development engineering major, the first of its kind in Virginia.

The dedication of the community to making these projects work is outstanding. For the Northrop Grumman and CGI projects, 17 regional committees were created to address issues from education and recruitment to housing, child care and health care. There is an overwhelming sense among the participants that making these projects successful is a must-win objective for future growth.

Overall, Southwest Virginia is working its way forward through a unique mix of politics, tobacco money and higher education. Somewhat unusual is the involvement of energy and coal companies. The four-lane highways built to take coal out of the mountains are now bringing progress back to the region.

It’s been a long time coming but there’s still a long way to go. Two Democratic governors, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, have been instrumental in bringing technology developments to the region, but it is generally an independent-leaning Republican stronghold. One has to wonder what kind of role electoral politics play and if politically-driven growth is sustainable.

The coal companies that took mineral rights for granted for generations are beginning to reinvest in clean coal technologies like coal to liquid, coal to gas and carbon sequestration, but it takes more than academic interest to commercialize these technologies.

This is another area where the state can help. Although the governor’s office released its energy report in September, Virginia still has a long way to go to build a competitive infrastructure for clean coal. Several other states are well ahead of Virginia on funding the development of alternative fuels.
So if we build it, will they come? Northrop Grumman and CGI have answered with a resounding “Yes!” The commitment of the local community and the availability of tobacco funds help to ensure success. Let’s hope that Southwest Virginia can get everything it needs. Growth in parts of the state beyond Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads may be another must-win objective to keep Virginia’s economy among the best in the country.

Bernie Niemeier, publisher of Virginia Business, is a member of the 2007 Class of Lead Virginia. Lead Virginia is a nonpartisan statewide organization that brings together leaders with the intention of creating “social capital” that will positively impact Virginia’s future.

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