Eggs in several baskets
A diversified job market develops in Southern Virginia
Southern Virginia ended 2019 with some of the largest investments the region has seen in recent years and strong economic momentum — a far cry from 15 to 20 years ago when the area experienced downfalls in employment and capital investment after the textiles industry moved operations outside the country.
Last July, the positive energy could have turned negative as the city of Danville and Pittsylvania County were once again facing the loss of a major employer. Ikea announced it would close down shop at the end of the year, resulting in an expected loss of approximately 300 jobs. But the two localities bounced back quickly with one of the largest regional economic deals in the past few decades — a $57.8 million investment by Michigan-based step-van manufacturer Morgan Olson LLC that will create up to 1,000 jobs, making it the largest private employer in Pittsylvania County. (Read story here.)
Morgan Olson, North America’s largest manufacturer of walk-in delivery vans, will more than double the number of jobs lost, “and the wages will be higher,” adds Matt Rowe, Pittsylvania County’s director of economic development.
Morgan Olson was just one of four deals the two localities co-announced for Regional Industrial Facilities Authority properties, such as the 3,500-acre Southern Virginia Megasite at Berry Hill, where Dominion Energy Inc. is building a 500-megawatt combustion turbine peaking plant. The $300 million project will create five jobs and is expected to come online in 2022.
Litehouse Foods in Airside Industrial Park should begin construction for an expansion this spring.
With tax revenues generated from the plant, the Megasite is “immediately a revenue generator,” Rowe says, noting Dominion would be the first tenant to locate in Berry Hill. “We had been putting money into the site and had no revenue until this.”
New Jersey-based AeroFarms, a world leader in aeroponic vertical farming, has selected Cane Creek Centre, a joint industrial park for Danville and Pittsylvania County, for a 150,000-square-foot facility. The company will invest $42 million and create 92 jobs. The company is looking to break ground this spring.
“The company’s aeroponic growing technology is 390 times more productive than field-grown plants,” Rowe says. “AeroFarms won Time magazine’s 2019 best invention award. It was the first time a food company received that designation.”
Pittsylvania County also landed Gefertec, a small German technology company that makes additive manufacturing machines. The $1.9 million investment will create eight jobs.
This year the county’s economic development efforts are focused on key areas such as automotive, aerospace and precision machining. One of the benefits it offers is cost savings. “Our numbers get to where we are 30 to 40% cheaper than other communities such as Canada, the northeast and certain areas of South Korea,” Rowe says.
Companies are also looking at Danville. Last year, the city scored nearly $450 million in investment and 968 jobs. It landed Idaho-based Litehouse Inc., a leader in refrigerated salad dressings and other consumer packaged goods. The company is investing $46 million to acquire and expand Sky Valley Foods and establish its first East Coast production facility in the city. The project will create an additional 160 jobs over the next five years.
The city also announced its first hospitality project in the historic district where Roanoke-based developer Ed Walker and his team are investing $7.5 million to convert two historic buildings into a 41-room boutique hotel.
International manufacturers continue their interest in the area based on several factors: the attractive cost of doing business (18% below the national average), the long-term appreciation for manufacturing and an investment in workforce training programs and infrastructure.
The progress in the region over the past year has been “truly amazing,” says Corrie Teague Bobe, Danville’s interim director of economic development, who took over when the city’s former director, Telly Tucker, left to head Arlington County’s economic development department in January.
“Through strategic investments in workforce training, we have been able to attract new businesses that will bring living wage jobs to residents within our community,” Bobe says.
During the past five years, the region has invested more than $50 million in developing a workforce program that assures businesses will find skilled labor to meet their needs and “be able to access talent for years to come,” she adds.
“Consistent” is the key word for Martinsville’s economic development efforts. For the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2019, the region had more than $80 million in investments and added 550 jobs. Of those projects, six were in calendar year 2019, with 167 jobs and $41 million in investment.
Last year saw the opening of the Commonwealth Crossing Business Centre and its new tenant, Press Glass, which is starting to fill more than 200 jobs. The company’s meet and greet in September drew more than 400 people, says Mark Heath, president and CEO of the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp.
The area continues to look for larger projects for Commonwealth Crossing in industries such as plastics, metalworking, food processing and aerospace. “We’re working with several consulting firms that specialize in those projects,” Heath says.
Foreign investments include Advanced Revert, an aerospace recycling firm in Sheffield, England, making a $5 million investment and creating 30 jobs over the next few years for its first U.S. operation, which will be in Henry County. “They are buying a former property and converting it into a recycling operation,” Heath says.
British Columbia-based forest products company Teal-Jones Group is investing $21 million and creating 67 jobs at its Henry County facility, where it manufactures Southern yellow pine dimensional lumber.
The area has also seen a number of expansions, including Eastman’s most recent expansion with an all-capital investment of $7.7 million.
2020 is going to be an “interesting year” for Halifax, says Brian Brown, executive director of the Halifax County Industrial Development Authority. The county is making workforce training a priority.
It is home to South Boston’s Southern Virginia Higher Education Center, with its R&D Center for Advanced Manufacturing and Energy Efficiency and the IT Academy. Located in a new 10,000-square-foot facility downtown, the center serves about 50 clients, offering companies the “ability to go from prototype to small production runs for manufacturing and development,” Brown says.
Additionally, the county is just months away from breaking ground on a shell building in Southern Virginia Technology Park and is continuing to work toward foreign direct investments from England and other European countries. “We are very confident in terms of where we are,” Brown says.
Technology is also an important focus in the town of South Boston, where Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities Corp. and Microsoft Corp. are partnering to build the 15,000-square-foot SOVA Innovation Hub downtown. Ground has already been broken on the $5 million project.
Microsoft, through its TechSpark initiative, will use the space to encourage innovation and spur economic opportunities in the region. The facility will also bring together local nonprofit organizations across Southern Virginia to offer programming for digital skills education and workforce training.
“We are hoping it will be up and running by September or October of this year,” says South Boston’s town manager, Tom Raab.
Additionally, the final phase of Imperial Lofts in the historic Imperial Tobacco Building, with 26 market-rate apartments, should be completed this spring. The facility also has 11,000 square feet of commercial space rented to the R&D Center.
On the tourism front, the town received an $876,000 grant last year from the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation for a motorized boat landing on the Dan River located at the entrance into the downtown area. The project should be complete by 2021 and provide “easy access to the Dan River,” Raab says.
As the saying goes, it takes a village to accomplish great things and over the last 10 years, the region has benefited from supportive leadership at the local, regional and state levels. The goal now, says Bobe, is “to become the region of choice for businesses in search of a skilled workforce and residents in search of a great quality of life.”