Category Archives: Economic development

Could Virginia Beach Become the Next Mecca for Data Centers?

This map shows the route of transatlantic cables, circa 2012.

This map shows the route of transatlantic cables, circa 2012. Note: no Mid-Atlantic connections.

by James A. Bacon

Virginia Beach is finally getting its Tide — not the Tide light rail system, but MAREA, the Spanish word for tide, which happens to be the name of a transatlantic cable project recently announced by Facebook, Microsoft and Teleconica, the Spanish telecommunications giant, according to the Virginian-Pilot.

The 4,000-mile cable will have a capacity of 160 terabytes of data per second, the highest-capacity cable of its kind to be laid under the ocean. The cable will be operated by Telxius, a unit of Telefonica. The company also will build the first transoceanic fiber cable station in the MidAtlantic region, in Virginia Beach off General Booth Boulevard.

Also, according to the Virginian-Pilot, Telefonica recently announced construction of a 7,000-mile cable stretching from Brazil to Puerto Rico and VirginiaBeach.

Virginia Beach officials see an economic opportunity. Said City Councilman Ben Davenport, chairman of the Virginia Beach Broadband Task Force: “Having Microsoft, Facebook and Telefonica come into Virginia Beach is an exciting development for our city, and it helps us continue our mission of becoming one of the most connected cities in the world.”

Questions, questions. Most transoceanic cables serving North America land in New York and New Jersey. This is a first for the Mid-Atlantic. Just how big a coup for Virginia Beach is this? Will Virginia Beach businesses benefit from higher speed access to Europe? Will access to the two transoceanic cables make Virginia Beach a logical location for the placement of data centers? In particular, are Microsoft and Facebook likely to build data centers there?

Then there are the spin-off questions. How would the rise of a major cluster of data centers in Virginia Beach affect the demand curve for electricity in the Dominion Virginia Power service territory? Would Microsoft and Facebook want access to “green” electricity from solar and wind? Could demand from a cluster of data centers be parlayed into a market for offshore wind?

This development could be a game changer. It bears close watching.

Are Smaller Metros Becoming Competitive with Big Metros?

Governor Terry McAuliffe (left) and Steve Case

Governor Terry McAuliffe (left) and Steve Case. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

by James A. Bacon

The flight of promising startup companies from smaller cities to big ones “is beginning to change,” AOL co-founder Steve Case said yesterday during an entrepreneurship event in downtown Richmond yesterday. Regions such as Richmond can avoid losing startups to bigger metros, he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “if you build up the right infrastructure in terms of capital and talent.”

You can take Case’s words with a heavy helping of salt — he was on a cross-country bus tour to promote entrepreneurship and his new book, “The Third Wave,” in which he argues that the third phase of the digital revolution is integrating the internet “in seamless, pervasive and sometimes even invisible ways” throughout our lives. This third wave, he contends, will revolutionize traditional sectors such as energy, health care, education, transportation, and food.

Currently, about 75% of all venture capital deals are consummated in just three states — California, New York and Massachusetts. “That does not reflect the distribution of great entrepreneurs with great ideas,” Case said. “There are a lot of great entrepreneurs in Virginia.”

The T-D article provided little explanation of why Case thinks why smaller cities will fare better than the past, other than citing the rise of crowd-funding, which allows average investors to find and invest in small startups.

Indeed, Case’s prognostication makes quite a contrast to a post I published earlier this week, “A New Map of Economic Growth,” which suggested new business formation is becoming more concentrated in a few large cities, not less. There is a large body of economic theory to suggest that, all other things being equal, larger metropolitan regions enjoy a big competitive advantage in the Knowledge Economy over smaller ones. Both job seekers and the companies that hire them prefer doing business in larger labor markets where they have more choices.

There wasn’t enough in the T-D article to make Case sound terribly persuasive. However, Case is one shrewd guy. He built AOL into an internet powerhouse and then, seeing that his subscription-driven business model was living on borrowed time, sold out to Time Warner at an extraordinary premium.

I’d like to think that there’s a strong case to be made for a smaller-metro revival in fortune. It just can’t be divined from Case’s remarks yesterday.

However, Governor Terry McAuliffe left no doubt in his remarks what he thought the secret is — a business-friendly environment and workforce training. He said his goal is to revamp high school education to produce graduates better prepared for the 21st century economy. “My goal is when every child gets out of high school that they have a skill to match the jobs that are out there today.”

The New Map of Economic Growth

Jobs growth during the recovery from EIG

by James A. Bacon

Not only has job creation and new business formation been weak in the current business cycle, it has been more concentrated geographically than in the past. Unfortunately for the Old Dominion, between 2010 and 2014 that concentration did not occur here.

This analysis points to very different futures for American communities, suggesting that the gains from growth have and will continue to consolidate in the largest and most dynamic counties and leave other areas searching for their place in the new economy,” writes the Economic Innovation Group in a new publication, “The New Map of Economic Growth and Recovery.”

The report buttresses an argument familiar to Bacon’s Rebellion readers: that larger metropolitan areas enjoy a significant competitive advantage in the Knowledge Economy. Skilled and educated employees seek large labor markets that provide a diversity of employment opportunities, while corporations seek larger, deeper labor markets that provide access to a diversity of skilled and educated employees. The dynamics of labor markets outweigh factors that confer competitive advantage in the old industrial economy such as access to transportation and natural resources, lower labor costs, low taxes and a low cost of doing business.

In summary: Large metros enjoy a major competitive advantage, smaller metros are teetering on a knife’s edge, and rural areas and small towns are hosed.

“The U.S. economy is becoming far more reliant on a small number of super-performing counties to generate new businesses,” EIG says. “A mere 20 counties accounting for only 17 percent of the U.S. population were responsible for half of the net national increase in business establishments from 2010 to 2014.”

The report does not speculate whether the trend is the result of temporary economic or political factors or is an irreversible long-term trend.

Graphic credit: EGI

Graphic credit: EGI

Two trends contribute to the sharp decline in the number of businesses: a higher rate of firm deaths (more companies getting acquired or going out of business) and a collapse in new business formation, as can be seen below.


What could account for these trends? One logical possibility: In a blast of creative destruction associated with the digital economy, a relatively small number of new companies are displacing many established businesses. Another possibility: A wave of economic regulation in recent years has hobbled large swaths of the economy — the banking industry, the Internet, health care, energy, and so on — and has created new economies of scale that favor large, established corporations, encourages mergers and consolidations, and throws up barriers to entry to new firms. Most likely, both are at work.

Weakness in the national economy means that everyone is swimming upstream. Only a small number of metropolitan areas are strong enough to make any progress swimming against the current. Mega-trends favor the mega-metros.

But mega-trends won’t tell the whole story. Some large metros bungle their opportunities though corruption, business-hostile policies and mal-investment of public resources. Some smaller communities buck the broader trends by building defensible economic niches. The news from the EIG report is discouraging, but short-term trends need not dictate our long-term destiny.

Virginia Manufacturing Output Up, Jobs Down

There are more than 2,000 craft breweries in the U.S. now. Could artisan foods and beverages be the Next Big Thing in manufacturing?

There are more than 2,000 craft breweries in the U.S. now. Could artisan foods and beverages be the Next Big Thing in manufacturing?

by James A. Bacon

Manufacturing output in Virginia increased 3 percent between the 4th quarter of 2007 and the third quarter of 2015, yet manufacturing employment decreased more than 14% during the same period. Put another way, Virginia added $1 billion in manufacturing output, even after adjusting for inflation, but lost more than 40,000 manufacturing jobs, writes Aaron Williams in the Commonwealth Institute blog.

Overall Virginia employment is gaining steam. The state gained almost 20,000 jobs in the first quarter of 2016 and 100,000 jobs over the last year. But the gains were concentrated in service sectors like education, health and business services. The bastions of blue-collar employment such as construction, mining and manufacturing remained close to flat.

Williams’s commentary focuses on manufacturing. One possible explanation for increased output with declining employment is increasing productivity — the adoption of new technologies such as robotics to enable each person to produce more goods. While Williams doesn’t rule that out, he leans toward a second explanation: a turnover in manufacturing enterprises from low-value, high-labor intensive enterprises to high-value, low-labor businesses. “For example, high-end craft breweries and wineries replace textile mills and furniture factories,” he writes.

Between 2007 and 2013, food, beverage, and tobacco products manufacturing increased 40 percent while furniture manufacturing decreased 51 percent, textile mills decreased 57 percent, and petroleum and coal manufacturing decreased 65 percent. Simply put, manufacturing is a quickly changing sector in Virginia’s changing economy.

Bacon’s bottom line: Whether or not you except Williams’ analysis of the why manufacturing jobs are drying up, there is no disputing that manufacturing output is increasing while jobs are shrinking.

What does this mean for public policy? First, it calls into question the economic development priorities of the Commonwealth of Virginia — the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, regional economic development partnerships, the Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission, and time spent by Virginia governors on traditional economic development salesmanship — which have changed little since the model was perfected in America’s 1970s industrial-era heyday. If the goal is to create jobs, then pursuing manufacturing investment offers diminishing returns. Virginia still lands deals, but the deals offer less employment.

Another point: the high value-added model of breweries and wineries is a largely bottom-up phenomenon. While the Commonwealth has bolstered the wine industry through research, education and marketing under the auspices of the Virginia Wine Board — 2015 budget of $350,000 — please notice that the state is not in the business of subsidizing the start-up new vineyards and wineries. (Subsidies for craft breweries is a different matter, especially if they are big breweries coming from outside the state. Witness Stone Brewery.)

The trend toward local artisan food products is one that has occurred largely outside the eye of the traditional economic development apparatus, geared as it is to finding tenants for industrial parks. The Virginia’s Finest marketing campaign promoting craft food manufacturers is the exception that proves the rule. But, similar to the wine board, the support has been entirely at the level of branding and marketing… which is as it should be.

If Virginia wants to support the emerging craft economy, it needs to re-think its approach to economic development. I haven’t given much thought to which supporting structures are needed to boost the sector, but I’m pretty sure it’s not tax breaks and subsidies for individual enterprises, or industrial real estate development. The best approach may be thinking about reducing regulatory barriers and obstacles for entrepreneurs.

RVA Snapshot: Nice Vision, but the Devil’s in the Details

rva_snapshotby James A. Bacon

The Capital Region Collaborative, a not-for-profit dedicated to building a more livable, prosperous Richmond region, has just published RVA Snapshot, a set of metrics that compares Richmond to six peer metros of comparable size. The accompanying commentary summarizes the conventional wisdom regarding the region’s strengths and weaknesses, and articulates a “shared vision” for the future.

I find the aspirations particularly interesting, as they express the values of the business, political and civic leaders who influence how the region allocates resources to advance the public good.

Education: The region ensures that every child graduates from high school college or career ready.

Job creation: The region enjoys a diverse economy that is competitive in the global marketplace and provides job opportunities for all.

Workforce preparation: The region aligns workforce skills to employer needs.

Social stability: The region embraces our social diversity as a strong community asset and supports a community where all residents have the opportunity to succeed.

Healthy community: The region transforms into a metro area known for an active lifestyle.

Coordinated transportation: The region maintains its status as one of the most uncongested transportation networks in the country while supporting all modes of transportation.

James River: The region will make the James River a centerpiece for entertainment, recreation, and commerce.

Quality of place: The region is the most appealing and attractive destination for arts, culture and entertainment on the East Coast.

By necessity, these aspirations are watered down to appeal to a broad cross section of the population. It’s hard even for a curmudgeon like me to take exception to any of them. The tricky part is figuring out which tangible actions will advance these goals. And that often boils down to political philosophy — what role should government play? To what extent does the community achieve its goals by taxing, spending and regulating, and to what extent does it rely upon voluntary, bottom-up initiatives?

Needless to say, I favor voluntary, bottom-up initiatives. For example, the Capital Area Farmer Markets Association is creating a food guide listing all restaurants, farms, grocers, markets and other businesses where consumers can purchase local food. I doubt I’ll go out of my way to patronize these establishments, but if other people do, that’s great! I’m all for increasing consumer choices.

I’m less excited by the uncritical emphasis on public transit, which the document kinda, sorta endorses by noting that the Richmond region is 8th lowest ranked among its peers with regard to transit coverage and job access. That may be true, and creating affordable transportation options for the public may be desirable, but expanding mass transit is not a win-win proposition, it’s a win-lose. Money is involuntarily transferred from one group of people (taxpayers) to another group of people (transit riders), usually with little regard to economic efficiency or emerging transportation alternatives.

Regardless, all the right-thinking people in Richmond are lining up behind Richmond’s proposed bus rapid transit system. I have yet to see a discussion of appropriate land uses along the bus corridor or streetscape improvements needed to make the corridor more hospitable for passengers walking from the stations to their destination. Nor has anyone considered how the Uber revolution might be extended to privately operated vans and buses as a way to provide affordable transportation access to the poor. Having dealt with none of these issues, the City of Richmond will incur a long-term obligation to continue operating a money-losing service.

Which brings me to my final point: RVA Snapshot gives no consideration to the long-term fiscal health of local governments in the region. Apparently, is it assumed that AAA and AA bond ratings are a birthright that require no special attention. Trouble is, local governments are hard-pressed to maintain the services at current tax rates without expanding their commitments and setting themselves up for future failure. Sound finances are the bedrock of any community’s long-term prosperity. I would add the following aspiration:

Fiscal health: The region embraces sound fiscal practices that support the ability of local governments to maintain competitive tax rates and pursue excellence in core functions over the long run.

Explaining Fairfax County by Way of New York City


Graphic credit: StatChat

by James A. Bacon

National population migration surveys invariably show Fairfax County to be a big loser. The county experienced a net domestic out-migration of 16,800 in 2015 and 46,500 since 2010. When viewed in isolation the numbers make Virginia’s largest locality look like a war zone — call it Little Aleppo. Yet somehow the population continues to increase, and somehow the county manages to support one of the highest per capita incomes of any jurisdiction in the United States.

Writing at the StatChat blog, Luke Juday explores the seeming contradiction by taking a look at New York City, which shows a similar profile of massive domestic out-migration and increasing population. By way of explanation, he points to two trends: foreign in-migration and natural increase. In New York, a wave of immigrants more than replaced the native-born Americans who were leaving. Furthermore, the demographic profile skews younger than for the nation — and people in their 20s and 30s have more children than people in their 50s and 60s.

New York is not turning into another Detroit as its native-born population moves away. Sky-high real estate prices may drive out the middle class, but unaffordable real estate is a sure sign of high demand. As Juday points out: “Its population continues to climb despite an astronomical cost of living that suggests even more people would live there if they could.”

That New York is a gateway for immigration is a secret to no one. But the idea that it is a young city is less widely recognized. Writes Juday:

New York is a young city compared to the nation as a whole. Like most cities, it has a disproportionate share of young adults in their 20’s and early 30’s. Young adults are important in demographics for two reasons. First is what they don’t do: die. A population of 20-somethings will have far fewer deaths in any given year than a population of 60-somethings. Second is what they do: have babies. Women between the ages of 20 and 35 are in their prime childbearing years. Unsurprisingly, places that have a lot of women in their prime childbearing years tend to have a lot of births as well.

The people moving to New York are younger than those who are leaving. Think college graduates seeking the bright-lights-big-city in Wall Street, Madison Avenue or Broadway while snow birds retire to Boca Raton. (The numbers also suggest that native-born households in the child-raising years, along with their children, also leave the city — presumably to a less hectic life outside the urban core.) The end result is a city with a high proportion of young, creative, entrepreneurially vital people in their 20s and 30s.

Unfortunately, Juday does not close the loop in his blog post. Is what’s happening in New York also happening in Fairfax County? Well, after accounting for foreign immigration, Fairfax County has actually experienced a net in-migration of 9,200 since 2010, so at least one of New York City’s demographic drivers is the same. Juday does not tell us whether Fairfax has a similar population profile heavily weighted by people in their 20s and 30s. But he promises to reveal more in a later post.

An Explanation, Please, for $2 Million Subsidy to Relocate Jobs from Roanoke to Norfolk

Shuttered: Norfolk Southern's regional office in Roanoke

Shuttered: Norfolk Southern’s regional office in Roanoke

About that $2 million subsidy from the Governors Opportunity Fund (GOF) to support the relocation of Norfolk Southern jobs from Roanoke to Norfolk… The Roanoke Times is asking whether it violates state law.

On the one hand, the newspaper reports, a 2006 law bars the use of GOF grants intended to underwrite the move of jobs from one Virginia community to another, as Norfolk Southern is doing in in the transfer of roughly 165 jobs from the shuttered regional headquarters office in Roanoke to the headquarters facility in Norfolk. On the other, the law provides an exception in rare instances justified by letter from the state Secretary of Commerce and Trade.

Arguably, there is an extenuating circumstance in the Norfolk Southern deal. The railroad company did consider relocating employees to Atlanta. State and local subsidies tipped the deal in favor of Norfolk. But, as of Friday, neither Senate Finance nor House Appropriations committees had received such an explanation from Commerce Secretary Maurice Jones.

Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr., R-Augusta, co-chairman of the Finance Committee, said, “I need an explanation of what went on, since I don’t have clarity. … The intent of the law is, of course, you shouldn’t [subsidize the relocation of jobs from one Virginia locality to another] except in rare circumstances. Then, in that rare circumstance, you need to justify it through appropriate channels to let people know what you did. It does seem like on the surface there, that they haven’t complied with that in a timely manner, and it may not be appropriate.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Here’s the key question for which the public has no answer: How seriously did Norfolk Southern contemplate moving the jobs to Atlanta? We can start by asking which business functions were being moved. Could those business functions have integrated into Norfolk Southern operations as efficiently in Atlanta as in Norfolk? How expensive was Atlanta office space compared to Norfolk office space? How did the workforce characteristics compare for purposes of recruiting? What other factors might have come into play? Virginia taxpayers need to know that the railroad company wasn’t, well, railroading the state into coughing up money unnecessarily.

I expect the McAuliffe administration to demonstrate that it has command of all the relevant facts and to be able to make a strong business case that the subsidies were necessary to keep the jobs. We have seen in the case of Lindenburg Industry LLC that the dispensation of GOF dollars has been loosey-goosey at times. The fact that the administration has provided no explanation for the Norfolk Southern deal does not inspire confidence.