No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Barnie Day



No Magic Beans


The shell building approach to economic development is obsolete. Communities like Martinsville must look to education, entre- preneurship and unconventional assets.


The sharpest memory I have during my time in the legislature was watching Carolyn Franck plead before a committee of the Virginia House of Delegates for an extension of unemployment benefits for thousands of laid-off textile workers here in Martinsville and Henry County. I knew she had seen, indeed, had lived, the rise of Tultex from a company of fewer than than 200 employees to one of 8000 with a worldwide reputation for quality and excellence, only to see it vanish into the dust of oblivion.


Carolyn Franck’s grace and dignity that afternoon made the hair stand up on the back of my neck.  It does now when I think about it.


A document called the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) brought her to a committee hearing in Richmond the afternoon that I remember so vividly. It is NAFTA, CAFTA, the WTO, and the GATT talks and all of their ramifications and after-effects that give urgency to what we do now.


We welcome a new leader to this endeavor. As the newly appointed CEO of the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corporation, Mark Heath brings impeccable credentials and a long, sustained track record of success to this post. But he can’t do it by himself. There are no magic beans in his pocket. We must help him.


The issue has not always been properly defined. Economic development is not about creating wealth. Economic development is about putting unemployed people into lasting, paying, private sector jobs. We haven’t always played to our real strengths in this regard.


We send our representatives to trade shows in Europe when we ought to be camping out in the backwaters of places like New Jersey and Ohio, getting to know some of the thousands of small, family-owned businesses that could absolutely flourish anew in the quality-of-life environment we have here.


I am almost certain that the shell building, or "big box" model of economic development that has characterized local government efforts all over Virginia for the past 20 years is obsolete. I know we have had success with shell buildings. Pittsylvania County has filled up five or six industrial parks with a 20-year shell-building program. But shell buildings are not the silver bullets, not the cure-alls they are sometimes made out to be.


Currently there 348 available empty industrial buildings scattered throughout Virginia--32 of them—almost four million square feet—here in Martinsville and Henry County. In many instances, the shell building model has amounted to little more than a recipe for bidding wars that boil down to one question:  “What will you give me if I bring a business to your community?” Communities that try to buy jobs will always be vulnerable to higher bidders, and companies that come for “gimmes” leave for better ones. Who benefits wins in these exchanges?


Long term, successful economic development here will, I believe, be “little box” in nature, not “big box,” and will happen when we play to all of our strengths. Success will be about understanding nuance, about knowing the intangibles of our community, its people, its history, and its culture, the life force of its heartbeat, and being able to articulate these intangibles to companies that share our values.


How do we do that?


We begin by being honest, by setting realistic expectations that are community wide and crystal clear. It is critical that everyone—especially the area’s political leadership—be on the same sheet of music in this regard.


We don’t need more “focus” groups or “facilitators.” We don’t need another “study,” “analysis,” “strategy,” “needs assessment,” or “survey.” We don’t need another “action” plan.


These things are attractive, expensive, and, for the most part, useless. The data is valid, the shelf life good, for about as long as it takes them to gather dust.


Our real assets still await meaningful leverage. We have attributes here beyond the means of most communities our size—the Harvest Foundation, the Piedmont Arts Association, the Virginia Museum of Natural History, Patrick Henry Community College, Philpott Reservoir, Smith Mountain Lake, Fairystone State Park, the new Y, Martinsville Speedway. We have enough treated water capacity to replicate Niagara Falls.


We must reassure and give voice to the existing employment base in Martinsville and Henry County. This existing base will generate most of our future employment growth. We must continue the re-tooling of the Martinsville and Henry County workforce. The existing skill-set is not compatible with the future we face. Ample water and cheap labor transitioned our economy into the industrial age but the coin of our future will be education and a highly educated workforce.


Our number one economic development pursuit should be a resident four-year college here. There is nothing—nothing—that would give our economy a better or longer lasting jolt.


We must communicate to the keepers of our public infrastructures the vital role they play in economic development. The same is true of our private sector, our retail, real estate, utilities and banking sectors. They will play a critical role in achieving economic development success in Martinsville and Henry County. We must give them voice.


We must recognize the enormous potential and positive economic impact that tourism, recreation, and leisure-time pursuits has on our economy. We must understand and recognize the importance of regional cooperation with our neighbors, with the other local governments that surround us.


Partnerships with them will benefit us all. We must understand the enormous impact and potential that our health care and retirement sectors represent, particularly Memorial Hospital and Kings Grant, as our population grows older. Finally, we must appreciate and understand the contributions that our religious, cultural and civic organizations can play in putting our best foot forward to the rest of the world.


This is how we will succeed—not by putting our faith in magic beans—but by being realistic, understanding the issue, and simultaneously packaging the whole of our community. We will succeed by collectively putting our best foot forward—and doing so seamlessly. 


-- February 13, 2006


This column is reprinted with permission from the Martinsville Bulletin.












A former member of the Virginia House of Delegates, Barnie Day is a business development officer with Smith River Community Bank.


Barnie Day

604 Braswell Drive
Meadows of Dan, VA




Read his profile and back columns here.