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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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Virginia for the past 20 years is obsolete.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.
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?
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
do we do that?
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
February 13, 2006
column is reprinted with permission from the