Category Archives: Economic development

A Plan to Build the Best Educated Workforce by 2030

A multi ethnic group of graduates in graduation gownsby James A. Bacon

Virginia has one of the better educated workforces among the 50 states. The Old Dominion ranked 4th nationally in 2009 by the percentage of population 25 years or older with an advanced degree, and 6th nationally for the percentage with a Bachelor’s degree. Those statistics reflect the fact that the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., have among the highest levels of educational attainment anywhere in the country. Go outside of Northern Virginia, and it’s a different picture. Ranked by the percentage of workers who have graduated from high school, Virginia tumbled to 30th.

What would it take to set the standard for the United States — to build the best educated workforce in the entire country?

The State Council for Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV) has been asking that question. Indeed SCHEV has developed a statewide strategic plan with four broad goals to achieve that objective by 2030. This plan has no money behind it at present but it provides a road map for how to become No. 1 in educational attainment should the political and cultural will exist to get there.

Virginia’s public universities will develop their own six-year plans that align with the SCHEV plan, says Peter Blake, SCHEV’s executive director, but they can’t get there by themselves.  At some point, he says, the General Assembly will have to increase its public support to make it a reality. Says he: “It’s the commonwealth’s plan.”

The statewide strategic plan has four broad goals:

Provide affordable access for all. Strategies include expanding outreach to traditionally underserved populations; improving readiness of all students; cultivating affordable post-secondary pathways; and align state appropriation financial aid and tuition and fees so students have access regardless of their ability to pay.

Optimize student success. The plan calls for strengthening curricular options to ensure graduates have competencies necessary for employment and civic engagement; helping students to complete their degrees; and engaging adults and veterans in certificate and degree-completion programs and lifelong learning.

Drive change through innovation and investment. Blake describes these goals as the “creative disruption” part of the plan, in which colleges and universities rigorously evaluate what they’re doing on an ongoing basis. Strategies include cultivating innovations that enrich quality, promote collaboration and improve efficiency; fostering faculty excellence, scholarship and diversity; and enhancing higher ed leadership, governance and accountability.

Advancing economic and cultural prosperity. Strategies include building a future-ready workforce in all regions of the state; catalyzing entrepreneurship and business incubation; promoting research and development; and expanding public service to the community.

The framework (goals and strategies) is in place, says Blake. The next step is to adopt metrics by which to measure progress toward those goals. Draft metrics include the following targets:

  • 1.5 million total undergraduate awards
  • Closing the graduation gap between under-represented populations (URPs) and other populations
  • Address the financial needs of 50% of low- and middle-income students
  • 80% of graduates earn sustainable wages within three years of graduation
  • Double R&D expenditures to $2.84 million

Those are the biggies, says Blake, although SCHEV proposes 12 more “related indicators” such as persistence (the percentage of enrollees who graduate within six years), default rates on student loans, state funding, and completions of high-demand degrees.

Cruz, “Liberty” and Teletubbies

AP CRUZ A USA VA By Peter Galuszka

Where’s the “Liberty” in Liberty University?

The Christian school founded by the controversial televangelist Jerry Falwell required students under threat of a $10 “fine” and other punishments to attend a “convocation” Monday where hard-right U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz announced his candidacy for president.

Thus, Liberty produced a throng of people, some 10,000 strong, to cheer on Cruz who wants to throttle Obamacare, gay marriage, abolish the Internal Revenue Service and blunt immigration reform.

Some students stood up to the school for forcing them to become political props. Some wore T-Shirts proclaiming their support of libertarian Rand Paul while others protested the university’s coercion. “I just think it’s unfair. I wouldn’t say it’s dishonest, but it’s approaching dishonesty,” Titus Folks, a Liberty student, told reporters.

University officials, including Jerry Falwell, the son of the late founder, claim they have the right as a private institution to require students to attend “convocations” when they say so. But it doesn’t give them the power to take away the political rights of individual students not to be human displays  in a big and perhaps false show.

There’s another odd issue here. While Liberty obviously supports hard right Tea Party types, the traditional Republican Party in the state is struggling financially.

Russ Moulton, a GOP activist who helped Dave Brat unseat House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a primary last summer, has emailed party members begging them to come up with $30,000 to help the cash-strapped state party.

GOP party officials downplay the money problem, but it is abundantly clear that the struggles among Virginia Republicans are as stressed out as ever. Brat won in part because he cast himself as a Tea Party favorite painting Cantor as toady for big money interests. The upset drew national attention.

Liberty University has grown from a collection of mobile homes to a successful school, but it always has had the deal with the shadow of its founder. The Rev. Falwell gained notoriety over the years for putting segregationists on his television show and opposing gay rights, going so far as to claim that “Teletubbies,” a cartoon production for young children, covertly backed homosexual role models.

Years ago, the Richmond Times-Dispatch published a story showing that the Rev. Falwell took liberties in promoting the school he founded in 1971. Brochures touting the school pictured a downtown Lynchburg bank building with the bank’s logo airbrushed off. This gave the impression that Liberty was thriving with stately miniature skyscrapers for its campus.

Some observers have noted that Liberty might be an appropriate place for the outspoken Cruz to launch his campaign. The setting tends to blunt the fact that he’s the product of an Ivy League education – something that might not go down too well with Tea Party types – and that he was actually born in Canada, although there is no question about his U.S. citizenship and eligibility to run for question.

Hard-line conservatives have questioned the eligibility of Barack Obama to run for U.S. president although he is likewise qualified.

With Cruz in the ring and Liberty cheering him, it will make for an interesting campaign.

An Inexpensive Experiment

Henrico industrial property anyone?

Henrico industrial property anyone?

by James A. Bacon

Henrico County, my home county, is conducting an inexpensive public policy experiment. If it pans out, the county could improve its competitive posture as a manufacturing location. If it doesn’t, the county hasn’t lost much and can always revert to the previous status quo.

County Manager John A. Vithoulkas has included a 70% cut to the county’s machine & tools tax in next year’s annual budget from $1 per $100 in value to $0.30, a measure that will cost the county an estimated $1.5 million a year in revenue. The cut appears poised to pass, reports Ted Strong with the Richmond Times-Dispatch. It received no opposition in last week’s legislative budget hearings.

“In the long term, this should lead to more manufacturing jobs, which will add more revenue to the county’s coffers,” Vithoulkas said. “We are competing for jobs in the world market now. And we aim to not just compete, but to win.”

The move will help the county capitalize on increased activity in the manufacturing sector, especially “on-shoring” or the repatriation of manufacturing jobs to the United States from abroad, said Gary McLaren, executive director of the Henrico County Economic Development Authority. “We’re serious about attracting manufacturing jobs to Henrico County, and I think this is proof of that.”

Brett Vassey, president of the Virginia Manufacturers Association, described the tax as one of the biggest impediments to manufacturing expansion in Virginia. The tax discourages companies from spending on new equipment that will make them more competitive. “Capital is like water. It flows to the lowest point,” he said.

I’m not totally convinced that the tax cut will make a difference, and it will be hard to determine if is a decisive factor even if Henrico does attract new manufacturing investment. But I think it’s worth a try. On-shoring is a major trend, and Virginia localities should try to exploit it. As labor costs rise in China, many companies are thinking about pulling some of their manufacturing operations back to the U.S. The trend is especially strong in energy-intensive industries that can take advantage of super-low natural gas prices.

But I have two questions. First, will the surging value of the U.S. dollar hurt Virginia (and the rest of the nation) as a manufacturing platform? The economic commentary is almost unanimous that manufacturing will be one one of the hardest-hit sectors. As long as Europe and Japan persist in competitive devaluations of their currencies as a tool to stimulate their economies through their own versions of Quantitative Easing, U.S. manufacturing will suffer.

Second, will Virginia be in a position to exploit natural gas prices? Virginia produces very little of its own natural gas; it relies upon pipelines to bring in gas from the Gulf Coast or (in the future) the Marcellus Shale gas-producing areas of the country. Virginia is bumping up against the ceiling of its gas capacity.

During a February cold snap, Virginia Natural Gas, the AGL Resources subsidiary that distributes gas to the Hampton Roads area, was hard pressed to keep the gas flowing. “Every valve was open,” Ken Yagelski, managing director of gas supply, told me in a recent interview. “We were utilizing all the capacity resources we had to serve our customers.” The company curtailed service to all 108 of its customers who had contracted to have their gas supply interrupted in exchange for a discount in rates. Those customers were prepared for the interruption, so no harm was done, but Yagelski says the incident could be a prelude to the future.

Demand for natural gas in in VNG’s service area is growing one or two percent yearly. VNG is looking to the proposed 550-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a venture in which it is a partner, to supply the gas for the next generation of growth. But the routing of that pipeline has proved to be incredibly controversial, and there is no guarantee at this point that it will be built. If it isn’t,  supply curtailments likely will become more frequent and, at some point, VNG would have to stop taking new customers.

VNG serves Hampton Roads, but would-be industrial customers in the Richmond region would be just as concerned about the reliability of gas supplies.

Bacon’s bottom line: Attracting new manufacturing investment through lower machine & tool taxes is no slam-dunk, and it would be unwise to create expectations that it will lead to sudden success. But if the spike in the value of the dollar proves to be temporary and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline does get built, Henrico’s bet should be one well worth taking. At the very least, a broad-based tax cut that benefits incumbent businesses as well as newcomers is vastly preferable to doling out subsidies and tax incentives to bribe one specific company to invest here.

Carbon Cuts: Why PJM Has a Better Idea

pjm-region-1024x657By Peter Galuszka

Amidst all the gnashing of teeth in Virginia about complying with proposed federal carbon dioxide rules, there seems to be one very large part of the debate that’s missing.

Several recent analytical reports explore using regional, carbon marketplaces to help comply with proposed federal Clean Power Plan rules that would cut carbon emissions by 2030. They conclude that the carbon goals can be attained more cheaply and efficiently by using a regional approach.

The lead study is by the PJM Interconnection, a grid that involves all or parts of 13 states including most of Virginia. Its March 2 report states that “state by state compliance options – compared to regional compliance options – likely would result in higher compliance costs for most PJM states because there are fewer low-cost options available within state boundaries than across the entire region.”

The same conclusion was made by another report by the Washington-based consulting firm Analysis Group on March 16. It states: “PJM’s analysis of compliance options demonstrates that regional, market-based approaches can meet Clean Power Plan goals across PJM states at lowest cost, with retirements likely spread out over a number of years.”

PJM set off in its analysis by setting a price per ton of carbon dioxide emissions with an eye towards the entities being exchanged among PJM-member utilities in a new market. The PJM report shows that electricity generation varies greatly among members. Some are farther along with renewables while others are greatly reliant upon coal.

By exchanging carbon units, some coal plants might actually be kept in service longer while overall goals are still achieved. EnergyWire, an industry news service, quotes Michael Kormos, PJM’s executive vice president for operations, as saying that the market-based carbon exchange, somewhat counterintuitively, might keep coal plants running longer.

“With the renewables and nuclear coming in as basically carbon free, we’re actually able run those coal resources more because they are getting credit from renewables and the nuclear as zero carbon.”

In December, PJM had 183,694 megawatts of generation. Some 67,749 megawatts are from coal-fired units.

Kormos says that a number of coal-fired units are going to be retired in the 2015 to 2030 timeframe regardless of what happens with the Clean Power Plan, whose final rules will be prepared by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency later this year. The retirements of older coal plants are expected to involve a minimum of 6,000 megawatts of power.

It is curious that very little of this report is being heard in the vigorous debate in Virginia about complying with the Clean Power Plan. What you hear is a bunch of humping and grumping from Dominion Virginia Power and its acolytes in the General Assembly, the State Corporation Commission and the media.

This is not a new concept. Carbon trading is active in Europe and has worked here to lessen acid rain.

It is amazing that one hears nothing about it these days. It is shouted down by alarmists who claim that Virginia ratepayers will be stuck with $6 billion in extra bills and that there’s an Obama-led  “War on Coal.” The New York Times has a front-pager this morning about how Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell is taking the rare step of actually leading the “War on Coal” propaganda campaign.

Also strange, if not bizarre, is that this approach is precisely market-based which so many commentators on the blog claim to worship. Where are they on the PJM idea? Has anyone asked Dominion, which is running the show in this debate?

Does Dominion Win or Lose from the New Law?

pain_point

Who’s taking the hit — Dominion or rate payers?

Virginia’s biggest power company could benefit from the freeze in electric rates but it also could take a big hit to earnings from power-plant shutdowns. 

by James A. Bacon

One of the biggest stories of the 2015 General Assembly session was lawmakers’ efforts to prepare the state for the oncoming Environmental Protection Agency regulations that will compel Virginia utilities to reduce carbon dioxide emissions 38% from 2005 levels by 2030. Virginia political reporters, as is their wont, covered the debate as a political story, with an emphasis on Dominion Virginia Power’s role in shaping the final legislation. That coverage left me deeply dissatisfied, as I wrote last month in “Does Anyone Really Understand This Dominion Deal?” The argument I advanced then was that no one understood the deal. Legislators were buying a pig in a poke.

The overriding question was, and still is: Who will pay for the restructuring of Virginia’s electric power industry in order to meet EPA mandates? Dominion and the State Corporation Commission contend that write-offs on four coal-fired power plants could go as high as $2.1 billion while ratepayers could be stuck with $5.5 billion to $6 billion to replace the lost capacity with new electric generating facilities — as much as $8 billion all told. Environmental groups argue that energy-efficiency measures could reduce the impact on customers significantly. Still, that’s a lot of pain to spread around. Who will get stuck with the bill — Virginia’s electric utilities, ratepayers or someone else?

I have spent the better part of the past week reading documents, conducting interviews and checking facts. I don’t pretend to have definitive answers. Indeed, there may be no definitive answers. Every time I peeled away one layer of the onion, I reached another layer that raised more questions. But I do think I can clarify the issues and get us closer to the answers. In this blog post I will address how General Assembly legislation impacts Dominion, which supplies 80% of the electric power consumed in Virginia. In the next I will explain how the law affects rate payers.

First, some background…

Last year the EPA issued rules designed to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions implicated in global warming. Given the way the rules were formulated, Virginia will be required to make especially onerous cuts. In October 2014 the State Corporation Commission (SCC) staff weighed in with a letter contending that the proposed regulation would raise electric rates and jeopardize the reliability of Virginia’s electric grid. In November the McAuliffe administration, which supports the CO2-reduction initiative in principle, followed with a letter suggesting how the proposed guidelines could be made more equitable to Virginia.

Last fall legislators, too, were concerned what impact the EPA regulations would have on Virginia rate payers.  The SCC estimated that shuttering four of Dominion’s five coal  plants would result in a 22% increase to electric rates. In response, Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach filed Senate Bill 1349, which he characterized as a “place holding bill” to jump-start discussion of how to deal with the challenge.

An early version of the bill was “very hostile” to the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, says Cale Jaffe, attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. By the time the bill reached the governor’s desk, however, language that would have made it difficult to shut down the coal plants was stripped out and provisions were inserted to encourage investments in solar energy and energy efficiency. The capital press corps interpreted the legislative drama as a display of Dominion’s political muscle, making frequent mention of its outsized political contributions to legislators and its veritable army of lobbyists and PR staff.

Was the final legislative package, in fact, a giveaway to Dominion? Let’s start with a summary of the main features of the legislation. The new law:

  • Freezes base rates and exempts Dominion from biennial rate reviews for five years. The next rate review will be in 2022.
  • Requires the utility, not customers, to bear the risk of power plant closures due to federal carbon regulations over the next five years.
  • Requires the utility to forgo collecting $85 million in fuel costs from 2014.
  • Accelerates a reduction in fuel-cost cuts by 30 days.
  • Requires the utility, not customers, to bear the risk of all weather events and natural disasters over the next five years.
  • Establishes a pilot energy assistance program for low-income, elderly, and disabled customers.
  • Declares up to 500 MW of utility-scale solar capacity to be in the public interest.
  • Affirms the SCC’s ability to audit Dominion’s books at any time and requires SCC approval before any power plant can be permanently retired.

Now the gory details…

Base-rate freeze. Legislators and Dominion justify the five-year freeze on base rates, which comprise roughly half of the total electric bill, as a way to provide a measure of certainty to both Dominion and consumers as the EPA regs work their way through the system. According to the Virginia Committee for Fair Utility Rates, a group of large industrial customers, this measure would fix Dominion’s base rates at a level deemed by the SCC in the last biennial review as likely to be excessive by $280 million a year. The freeze, critics say, allows Dominion to continue pocketing those excess earnings.

Dominion takes issue with the $280 million excess-earnings figure. That number does not include one-time costs like employee severance, unplanned environmental costs, storm costs and power plant impairments, which added up to $600 million in 2011 and 2012, according to David Botkins, Dominion media relations director. The excess-earnings forecast is meaningless, he says: There are always one-time expenses that must get factored in. Natural disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes and ice storms are recurring events. Dominion will continue to be affected by new rules emanating from the EPA. The $280 million number, says Tom Wohlfarth, senior vice president of regulation for Dominion Resources, “is a “picture-perfect” forecast of earnings that does not take into account “stuff that happens.” Continue reading

Dominion’s Clever Legerdemain

Dominion's Chesterfield coal-fired plant is Virginia's largest air polluter

Dominion’s Chesterfield coal-fired plant is Virginia’s largest air polluter

By Peter Galuszka

You may have read thousands of words on this blog arguing about the proposed federal Clean Power Plan, its impact on Dominion Virginia Power and a new law passed by the 2015 General Assembly that freezes the utility’s base rates and exempts it from rate reviews for five years.

All of this makes some basic and dangerous assumptions about the future of Dominion’s coal-fired generating plants.

It has somehow gotten into the common mindset that the Environmental Protection Agency will automatically force Dominion to close most of its six coal-fired stations.

Is this really so? And, if it is not, doesn’t that make much of this, including Dominion’s arguments for its five-year holiday from rate reviews by the State Corporation Commission, moot?

In June 2014, the EPA unveiled the Clean Power Plan and asked for comments by this upcoming summer. The idea is to have Virginia cut its carbon emissions by 38 percent by 2025. Coal plants are the largest contributors to carbon emissions by 2025.

A few points:

Dominion announced in 2011 that it would phase out its 638-megawatt coal-fired Chesapeake Energy Center that was built between 1950 and 1958.

In 2011, it also announced plans to phase out coal at its three-unit, 1,141 megawatt Yorktown power plant by shutting one coal-fired unit and converting a second one to natural gas. The units at the station were built in 1957, 1958 and 1974.

Mind you, these announcements came about three years before the EPA asked for comments about its new carbon reduction plan. But somehow, a lack of precision in the debate makes it sound as if the new EPA carbon rules are directly responsible for their closure. But how can that be if Dominion announced the closings in 2011 and the EPA rules were made public in June, 2014? Where’s the link between the events?

When the Chesapeake and Yorktown changes were announced, Dominion Chairman and CEO Thomas F. Farrell II, said: “This is the most cost-effective course to meet expected environmental regulations and maintain reliability for our customers.” Now Dominion is raising the specter of huge bills and unreliable grid.

Dominion has other big coal-fired plants. The largest is the 1,600 megawatt Chesterfield Power Station that provides about 12 per cent of Dominion’s power. Four of its six units—built from 1952 to 1969 — burn coal. Two others built in 1990 and 1992 are combined cycle units that use natural gas and distillate oil.

Dominion has upgraded scrubbers at the units, but the Chesterfield station is the single largest air polluter in the state and one of the largest in the nation.

Another big coal-fired plant is Dominion’s 865-megawatt Clover Power Station. It is more recent, having gone online in 1995 and 1996. It is the second largest carbon emitter in the state.

Then there’s the 600 megawatt Virginia City Hybrid plant that burns both coal and biomass in Wise County. It went into service in 2012.

Dominion had a small coal-fired plant at Bremo Bluffs but has converted it to natural gas.

So, if you add it all up, which coal-fired plants are really in jeopardy of closure by the EPA’s new rules? Chesterfield, Clover or Virginia City?

It’s hard to get a straight answer. In a blog post by Jim Bacon today, he quotes Thomas Wohlfarth, a Dominion senior vice president, as saying “It’s not a foregone conclusion that [the four coal-fired power plants] will be shut down. It’s a very real risk, but not a foregone conclusion.” Another problem is that I count three possible coal-fired plants, and don’t know what the fourth one is.

In a story about the Chesterfield power plant, another spokesman from Dominion told the Chesterfield Observer that Dominion “has no timeline no to close power stations” but it might have to consider some closings if the Clean Power Plan goes ahead as currently drafted.

Environmental groups have said that because of Dominion’s already-announced coal-plant shutdowns and conversion, the state is already 80 percent on its way to meet the proposed Clean Power Plan’s carbon cuts. When I asked a State Corporation Commission spokesman about this last fall, I got no answer.

What seems to be happening is that Dominion is raising the specter of closings without providing specific details of what exactly might be closed and why.

Its previously announced coal-plant shutdowns have suddenly and mysteriously been put back on the table and everyone, including Jim Bacon, the General Assembly and the SCC, seems to be buying into it.

Although there have been significant improvements in cutting pollution, coal-fired plants still are said to be responsible for deaths and illnesses, not to mention climate change. This remains unaddressed. Why is it deemed so essential that coal-fired units built 40, 50 or 60 years ago be kept in operation? It’s like insisting on driving a Studebaker because getting rid of it might cost someone his job that actually vanished years ago.

Also unaddressed is why Virginia can’t get into some kind of carbon tax or market-based caps on carbon pollution that have seen success with cutting acid rain and fluorocarbons.

It’s as if the state’s collective brain is somehow blocking the very idea of exploring a carbon tax and automatically defaults to the idea that if the EPA and the Obama Administration get their way, Virginia ratepayers will be stuck with $6 billion in extra bills and an unreliable electricity grid.

Could it be that this is exactly the mental legerdemain that Dominion very cleverly is foisting on us? Could be. Meanwhile, they continue to get exactly the kind of legislation from the General Assembly they want.

Time For a Fossil Fuel Reality Check

Murray

Murray

By Peter Galuszka

Let’s pause for a moment, catch our breath and realize what is really going on in the world of fossil fuel and climate change.

We’ve heard tons of loosely-based opinion from climate change deniers and drum beaters for the “War on Coal” crowd.

Here are two recent news items:

Coal baron Robert Murray is closing a $1.4 billion deal for Illinois Basin coal. The outspoken, labor-busting  boss who figured prominently in the “War on Coal” campaign during the Mitt Romney presidential run has been picking up reserves in the robust Illinois Basin and in the distressed Appalachians.

His deal for 50 percent of Foresight Energy follows another he did in 2013 worth $3.5 billion to buy five Appalachian mines from Consol.

What does this mean? It shows that coal overall does have a future, especially in the high-sulfur Illinois Basin which has been rediscovered since utilities such as the Tennessee Valley Authority have been forced to use better scrubbing equipment. Illinois Basin can be twenty bucks a ton cheaper than Appalachian product. He also sees some future left in high coast Appalachian coal.

Stop a moment and consider: new environmental regs promote the use of cheaper coal. Now that coal may not be in the Central Appalachian area of southwest Virginia and West Virginia. But the magic of the market is favoring Illinois Basin product which is simply easier and cheaper to mine as is Powder River Basin coal in Wyoming and Montana.

A big problem with some of the commentators on this blog is that they fail to grasp that the U.S. coal industry is a lot bigger than little ole Virginny’s mines that started to play out decades ago. In their world view, their demise is the fault of the bad old federal government, not sharp barons like Murray who is a major contributor to (ahem) the Republican Party. Their brains seem trapped in a geographical warp zone where they cannot imagine things beyond the borders of the Old Dominion.

And while we are on the GOP, let’s consider George Schultz’s oped Sunday in The Washington Post. For those of you who may forget, he was Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan, the mystical president some of you love and miss dearly.

Schultz’s message is that human based climate change is here. So, stop denying it, get over it and get on with a carbon tax that worked to protect the ozone layer years ago. Yes, they actually worked that out back in Ronnie’s day and a tax and marker system to reduce fluorocarbons actually worked.

Not to add insult to injury, but consider what Schultz wrote: “For example, we can now produce electricity from the wind and sun at close to the same price we pay for electricity from other sources…”

Hmm. Sounds like a wild-eyed, irresponsible greenie. Someone tell Jim Bacon and Dominion Virginia Power.

More Sharks Found in N.C. Sound

Bulls sharks: some of the world's most dangerous

Bulls sharks: some of the world’s most dangerous

By Peter Galuszka

The Pamlico Sound in North Carolina has long been a bellwether of environmental changes. Different temperatures and salinity levels can affect everything from marsh grass to shrimp catches to fish kills.

Now scientists are finding that more potentially deadly sharks are in this shallow, broad estuary that separates the mainland from the Outer Banks. The reason: rising water temperatures.

More bull sharks are being found in the Pamlico Sound, according to Charles Bangley, a doctoral candidate at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C.

He found 36 juvenile bull sharks in the sound since 2012. Another study found 113 bull sharks from 1965 to 2011. “It’s possible the Pamlico Sound represents a new nursing area for bull sharks,” he told The Virginian-Pilot.

Why so? Warmer water means that female bull sharks are swimming into the sound through narrow ocean inlets to take advantage of more plentiful food. They tend to have their young in the sound.

That’s not all. Two great white sharks, potential man eaters, have been seen in the Outer Banks area. One 14-feet-long female was pinged by satellite on the far west side of the Pamlico Sound in January.

Shark fatalities are rare events on the tourist-heavy Outer Banks. The last fatality was in Corolla in 2009. About eight years before that, a man was killed in the surf near Avon.

I’ve seen plenty of sharks diving 20 miles off Cape Hatteras which is a good place to find them since the cold Labrador Current and the warm Gulf Stream meet there, bringing in different species.

And, many years ago, when I was working one college summer as a newspaper reporter in Beaufort County, a gill net fisherman came up with a 10-foot dusky shark in the brackish waters of the Pamlico River where sharks are almost never found. Unusually warm and dry weather that summer meant that less fresh water was flowing into the sound from the Pamlico River and the shark had been swimming into the saltier areas.

The weird thing about bull sharks is that their birthing areas are usually in Florida, scientists believe.

Is this more evidence of (dare I say it) climate change? Could be. A few years ago there was news revealing that breeding populations of alligators had moved farther north. They had been in East Lake, N.C. near Nags Head but now were up near the Virginia border.

I’ll let you know when they reach the Potomac.

Roanoke Gets Serious about Competing for Young Professionals

roanokeby James A. Bacon

Roanokers know they have a challenge stemming the drain of educated young people, just like every other small metropolitan area in the United States. At least they’re asking the right questions: What does it take to recruit and retain young professionals? The Roanoke Regional Chamber is hosting an event later this month, Xperience 2015, to communicate to young professionals that the Roanoke and New River valley regions “can be hip and happening places to live, work and find career mentors,” in the words of Duncan Adams writing in the Roanoke Times. Or put another way: “Roanoke doesn’t suck.”

The starting point for any conversation is to recognize that the economic realities of the Knowledge Economy are stacked against smaller metropolitan regions. Big metros offer young professionals two very important things that small metros don’t: larger mating pools and larger job markets. Educated young people who have options of where to live will tend to gravitate to larger metros that provide a wider choice of mates and careers.

But some do choose to live in places in Roanoke. The trick is to figure out what kind of people they are and what made them decide to settle there.

As the urban heart of Southwest Virginia, Roanoke does have some “cool” stuff, Adams observes: craft breweries, downtown lofts, greenways and quick access to outdoor recreational amenities. So, it’s not as if young professionals are moving to a cultural wasteland. I would add, from my own personal experience as a young professional who lived in Roanoke four years during the early 1980s, the city enjoys exceptional natural beauty and has a small but vibrant downtown, not to mention a lower cost of living than larger metros. I loved the city and was sad to leave for better career opportunities elsewhere.

The challenge isn’t reaching the young professionals who live in Roanoke already. They know what the region offers. If they see career opportunities, many if not most will stay. The challenge is persuading young people from outside the region, not drawn by ties of family and friends, to give it a chance.

I’m still waiting for a community like Roanoke to conduct a market segmentation analysis of young college graduates. If I would have to hazard a guess, I would say 90% of college grads would have no interest whatsoever in moving to a place like Roanoke. But maybe 10% would. What characteristics do they have? Do they have a strong preference for outdoor activities like hiking, spelunking and canoeing? Do they hail from smaller towns? Are they more likely to be religious? Do they tend to be more culturally or politically conservative? Identify those characteristics and then devise targeted marketing campaigns to people with those traits. In the age of social media, that may not be so hard to do.

Western Virginia has a remarkable number of colleges and universities, from Virginia Tech and James Madison to Washington & Lee, VMI, Bridgewater, Hollins, Eastern Mennonite, Roanoke College and Mary Baldwin — just to name institutions within a two-hour drive from Roanoke. I would conjecture that students who choose to attend such institutions are more likely to appreciate the assets that Western Virginia has to offer and would be more likely than graduates of other institutions to consider settling down in the region. Perhaps there is some way for Roanoke to tap into the steady stream of college graduates.

Small metros like Roanoke face an uphill climb. The task is not hopeless. But they have to take the next step of identifying the niche market where they can compete in the talent recruitment marketplace. And then they need to organize their communities around creating and supporting the assets those niche college grads are looking for.

Economic Un-Development

Closed for business. Photo credit: Times-Dispatch.

Closed for business. Photo credit: Times-Dispatch.

I was planning to blog today about the sad fate of Tarek Hezam, a New Yorker who moved to the Richmond region and opened a convenience store in the Oak Grove neighborhood of the city in 2013. After neighbors complained that the store became a magnet for trash and crime, the City of Richmond revoked his certificate of zoning compliance, suddenly discovering that, oh, so sorry, they’d overlooked the fact that commercial zoning for the site had expired back in 1975. Between rent, startup costs and lawyer fees, Hezam is out $160,000.

But Bart Hinkle at the Times-Dispatch beat me to to the commentary — and he did a fine job of it, so I’ll just quote liberally from his column.

The city administration talks a good game about economic development, Hinkle writes, and it’s more than happy to work with the big boys on grandiose projects like the Shockoe Bottom ballpark, the Redskins training camp and the Stone Brewery development. But what does it say to small entrepreneurs who aren’t rich and politically connected? “Drop dead.”

Malcontents are worried about trash in the streets. But who is responsible for that? “Five bucks says Hezam doesn’t spend his spare time throwing garbage around the neighborhood,” writes Hinkle. “Nor, for another five bucks, do people drive in from North Side or Westover Hills to toss their empty chip bags and soda cups on the ground. If litter is a problem, then the solution is to tackle littering head-on.”

Some in the community also complained that Hezam was peddling the usual junk food fare found in inner-city convenience stores. Rosa Jones, president of the Oak Grove Civic Association, suggested he should bring a shoe shop “or something we can use.” As Hinkle observes, “Jones hasn’t sunk tens of thousands of her own dollars into the project. Until she does, she has no business telling the person who has invested his own money what to do with it. If she really wants a shoe shop in the neighborhood, then she’s welcome to open one herself — if the city will let her, that is.”

There is a crying need for jobs and investments in inner-city Richmond, but city officials have shut down one small entrepreneur who would create both at no expense or risk to the taxpayer. What kind of signal does that send to others, Hinkle wonders.

Hezam offered to change his retail format to a takeout restaurant serving fried chicken and fish but no alcohol. The planning commission shot him down. He plans to sue the city for relief. “If a judge in their right mind tells me I don’t have a claim,” he said, “then I shouldn’t be in Virginia.

– JAB