Rural Virginia, metro areas are interdependent

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Print this page by Bernie Niemeier

Before Interstate 64 was constructed, Routes 58, 60 and 460 were the major east-to-west highways across Virginia.  These routes connected the commonwealth’s cities and traveled through long stretches of rural Virginia.  Route 60 in particular, was a long straight shot across the Piedmont and up and down the foothills of the Blue Ridge, finally winding its way through the mountains from Buena Vista to West Virginia and continuing on to points farther west.

Even today when traveling these byways, it can be hard for a city dweller to imagine what life in the country is like.  While passing widely spaced farms and houses, it’s easy to wonder, “What do folks out here do for a living?”

Much of what we hear about employment growth in Virginia centers on information technology and government contracts.  The metropolitan areas have grown in population, and rural areas have declined.  Former major employers such as the furniture, textiles and tobacco industries have nearly disappeared.  Still, agriculture (including forestry) remains the largest job category in the commonwealth.

We call our cities “Independent Cities,” but other than having their own elected officials and school systems they are hardly independent.  Virtually all infrastructure projects (e.g. civic centers, ball parks, transit systems, concert venues) depend upon fiscal support from suburban counties and state or federal funding.

The tax base of our cities is rarely sufficient to fund projects that serve a greater regional good.  Nor should it be. These projects improve the quality of life and provide economic development assets to entire regions, so they deserve regional support.

Virginia’s state budget uses a number of complex funding formulas for allocations to individual localities for needs such as education, transportation, health care, public safety and social services.  These formulas transfer wealth from higher income metropolitan areas to lower- income and less populated rural ones that could not afford the full cost of certain essential services on their own.

Some argue, and rightfully so, that this transfer of tax revenue leaves the needs of the metropolitan areas less than fully met, especially when the metros have the vast majority of the state’s population and traffic congestion, while at the same time producing nearly all of the job growth for Virginia.  This is especially true in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.

On the other hand, proponents of rural Virginia are quick to remind us that connections between rural and metropolitan areas run two ways.  Where do water, electricity, food, fiber for clothing, lumber for construction and gravel for highways come from?  These are largely products of rural Virginia and rural America.

In addition to the commodities that fuel everyday living, we look toward rural locations for travel, vacation and recreational opportunities. In short, the quality of life in metropolitan areas is largely dependent upon the success of our rural regions.

When it comes to the future, almost everyone agrees that Virginia’s economic development is important.  Think for a minute about Newport News Shipbuilding, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, one of Virginia’s largest publicly traded companies and also our biggest manufacturing employer.  The shipyards were founded in 1886.  Do you think if a similar large manufacturer were to come to Virginia today, it would be located in Newport News?  Unlikely.  Rolls Royce, for example, selected a site in rural Prince George County, southeast of Petersburg for its new jet engine components plant.

Fairfax County was able to attract the North American headquarters of Volkswagen USA, but Virginia failed to gain a $1 billion Volkswagen assembly plant that went to Chattanooga, Tenn.  While the lack of parity on economic incentives is worth considering, Tennessee was chosen largely because it had a shovel-ready industrial mega-site that suited Volkswagen’s needs.  At the time, Virginia had no similar sites.

The Virginia Tobacco Commission is currently providing more than $28 million in funding for mega-sites in Virginia.  They are all in rural, formerly tobacco-dependent, communities.  In these times of cash-strapped state budgets, the Tobacco Commission has become the de-facto funding source for economic development.

The ability to rebuild Virginia’s industrial economy depends upon the availability of suitable land and capable workers. These largely will be found in rural areas, perhaps near smaller cities as in the Rolls Royce example.  The development of “automotive alley,” a cluster of automotive manufacturers and parts suppliers along rural sections of I-85 in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, is yet another example.

As traffic congestion increases, and high land costs become more prevalent in metropolitan areas, economic and work-force development in rural Virginia is increasingly important.  This isn’t a matter of choice between two lifestyles; it is one of interdependence.

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