A turnaround in fortunes
Transportation, manufacturing drive valley’s recovery
After taking a hit from the coronavirus, economic activity in the Shenandoah Valley recovered in the second half of 2020, powered by the transportation, manufacturing and food-processing sectors.
“The valley really showed its resilience,” says Jay Langston, executive director of the Shenandoah Valley Partnership, a regional economic development group serving Augusta, Bath, Highland, Page, Rockbridge, Rockingham and Shenandoah counties.
In the spring, as the pandemic settled in, SVP was focused on helping local businesses survive. “We were able to pivot some of our manufacturing operations, secure loans for our businesses and respond to the needs of our customers, our citizens and our communities,” Langston says.
The partnership also invested in its own operations by stepping up advertising and promotion of the region, developing virtual site tours, expanding its digital outreach and facilitating local workforce development.
“It was an amazingly productive year, one of the busiest of my career,” Langston said. At one point during the fall, SVP hosted four new business prospects, in person, in a span of seven days. “I don’t remember that ever happening.”
By year’s end, he says, “some of our homegrown companies came through for us in a big way.”
In the air
In November 2020, Dynamic Aviation Group Inc. announced a $48 million expansion that is expected to create more than 200 jobs.
The company, which provides custom aircraft, flight crews and maintenance services for government, research-based and commercial customers, is constructing an office building and composite shop at its 750-acre airpark near Bridgewater, as well as a hangar for its legacy aircraft fleet, which includes the original Air Force One used by President Dwight Eisenhower.
Dynamic Aviation President and CEO Michael Stoltzfus says the investment also covers a contract to customize Boeing 737s for a federal client facing new regulations. The majority of the company’s new hires will be aircraft maintenance technicians in Bridgewater.
The expansion should be completed by mid-2022. Dynamic Aviation’s headquarters in Rockingham County features a 300,000-square-foot heavy maintenance and modifications center, an engine shop and a private airport for its 140 aircraft. In February, the company confirmed it had laid off an undisclosed number of workers but that it was unrelated to the expansion, which is moving forward.
The pandemic presented a number of challenges for the company, not the least of which involved “the logistics of moving people and parts,” Stoltzfus says. “All of our operations were heavily disrupted, but the way we overcame that was by the strength of our team and everyone’s ability to show up every day, accept that day’s reality, adjust and implement.”
In December 2020, Silent Falcon UAS Technologies, an unmanned aircraft systems service provider and manufacturer, announced it would create 249 jobs by locating its East Coast headquarters at the Front Royal-Warren County Airport. The New Mexico-based company also plans to partner with Randolph-Macon Academy, which has a drone program preparing students for careers in the field.
Investing in rail
The Shenandoah Valley Railroad, a privately owned, 22-mile short line track, gained a new partner in 2020.
InterChange Group Inc., a third-party logistics company based in Harrisonburg, purchased a minority ownership stake in the railroad, which provides service to commercial customers between Staunton and the Pleasant Valley area just south of Harrisonburg. The line’s connections allow customers to access both the Norfolk Southern and CSX Class 1 railroads.
“We are excited to become a part of the Shenandoah Valley Railroad family, both as owners and as a new user,” says Devon Anders, president of InterChange Group Inc.
The company opened a 250,000-square-foot cold storage facility in Mount Crawford in 2019, with room to expand to 600,000 square feet. A rail spur currently under construction, along with local road improvements, will connect the facility with area manufacturers and the Virginia Inland Port system, offering exporting opportunities for the valley’s agricultural producers.
Langston says InterChange’s investment in the railroad will not only help keep local freight off Interstate 81, but also keep jobs in the valley.
Meanwhile, International Automotive Components is adding new product lines to its manufacturing facility in Strasburg. The $4.6 million investment, announced in December 2020, is expected to create 47 jobs.
Headquartered in Luxembourg, IAC Group is a global supplier of automotive components, including instrument panels, consoles, door panels, headliners and overhead systems.
The company has been a major employer in Shenandoah County since 2007, when it purchased the global interiors division of Lear Corp.
“Strasburg couldn’t be more excited about the announcement that one of our mainstay businesses is expanding and investing in our community again,” Michelle Bixler, the town’s director of community development, said in a statement.
Chocolates and chickens
Food processing in the valley remained strong last year.
In May, The Hershey Co. announced plans to increase capacity at its factory in Augusta County. The $135 million expansion is expected to add 90,000 square feet of production space and 110 jobs.
The Stuarts Draft location is the company’s second largest in the United States and makes many of Hershey’s peanut-based products, such as Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.
In November 2020, family-owned organic chicken producer Farmer Focus — previously known as Shenandoah Valley Organic — announced plans to increase production capacity and retail packaging in Harrisonburg, allowing for more product availability in leading grocery stores across the United States.
Brian Shull, Harrisonburg’s economic development director, says the company purchased all 67.5 acres in the Acorn Industrial Park and will build the retail packaging facility first. Phase two will involve construction of a second 75,000-square-foot processing facility, and the project is expected to create 110 jobs.
“We chose Harrisonburg to expand because this community and city is a big part of our success to date,” says CEO Corwin Heatwole, a sixth-generation valley poultry farmer. “Our production team and our farmers live here and come with tremendous experience in the poultry industry.”
In 2014, he purchased a shuttered poultry plant and began converting it into a processing facility. Farmer Focus is currently Harrisonburg’s sixth-largest employer, with more than 500 workers.
Waynesboro: A case study
Like many localities, Waynesboro endured its share of challenges in 2020.
Greg Hitchin, the city’s director of economic development and tourism, says Waynesboro entered the year with some positive momentum, having seen job growth toward the end of 2019.
Tourism revenue was strong and expected to continue with the newly planned Virginia Museum of Natural History on the horizon. At the time, the project was a line item in the governor’s budget.
In January 2020, South Dakota-based Raven Engineered Films chose Waynesboro for its East Coast operations, citing the city’s manufacturing heritage and proximity to major transportation and shipping hubs. The company makes plastic sheeting for large-scale agricultural and industrial uses.
“If you had asked me how things were going on March 1, I would have told you we were on a roll,” Hitchin says.
When the pandemic hit, many community development projects were put on the shelf. Waynesboro instead focused on helping keep its businesses afloat with grants and fundraising efforts.
By the fall, things were looking up. Electronics manufacturer Virtex announced it would be adding a new product line to its existing facility in the former General Electric facility on Hopeman Parkway, resulting in up to 50 new jobs. The company assembles circuit boards for military, aerospace and medical customers.
Waynesboro closed out the year on a high note, with Amazon.com Inc. leasing the former Kmart building on West Main Street for use as a delivery station beginning this year.
“Transformation of this former retail building into a vital e-commerce facility is important to the city as we rebuild our economy and prepare for the future,” Hitchin says.
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