Category Archives: Labor & workforce

Beware Stalling Growth in Northern Virginia

northern virginia mapBy Peter Galuszka

For at least a half a century, Fairfax County, Alexandria and Arlington County have been a growth engine that that has reshaped how things are in the Greater Washington area as well as the Old Dominion.

But now, apparently for the first time ever, these Northern Virginia localities have stopped growing, according to an intriguing article in The Washington Post.

In 2013, the county saw 4,673 arrivals but in 2014 saw 7,518 departures. For the same time period, Alexandria saw 493 arrivals and then 887 departures. Arlington County showed 2,004 arrivals in 2013 followed by 1,520 departures last year.

The chief reason appears to be sequestration and the reduction of federal spending. According to a George Mason University study, federal spending in the area was $11 billion less  last year than in 2010. From 2013 to 2014, the area lost 10,800 federal jobs and more private sectors ones that worked on government contracts. Many of the cuts are in defense which is being squeezed after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The most dramatic cuts appear to be in Fairfax which saw a huge burst of growth in 1970 when it had 450,000 people but has been slowing for the most part ever since. It still grew to 1.14 million people, but the negative growth last year is a vitally important trend.

Another reason for the drop offs is that residents are tired of the high cost and transit frustrations that living in Northern Virginia brings.

To be sure, Loudoun County still grew from 2013 to 2014, but the growth slowed last year from 8,904 newcomers in 2013 to 8,021 last year.

My takeaways are these:

  • The slowing growth in NOVA will likely put the brakes on Virginia’s move from being a “red” to a “blue” state. In 2010, Fairfax had become more diverse and older, with the county’s racial and ethnic minority population growing by 43 percent. This has been part of the reason why Virginia went for Barack Obama in the last two elections and has Democrats in the U.S. Senate and as governor. Will this trend change?
  • Economically, this is bad news for the rest of Virginia since NOVA is the economic engine for the state and pumps in plenty of tax revenues that end up being used in other regions. Usually, when people talk about Virginia out-migration, they mean people moving from the declining furniture and tobacco areas of Southside or the southwestern coalfields.
  • A shift in land use patterns and development is inevitable. The continued strong growth of an outer county like Loudoun suggests that suburban and exurban land use patterns, many of them wasteful, will continue there. The danger is that inner localities such as Fairfax, Arlington and Alexandria, will be stuck with more lower-income residents and deteriorating neighborhoods. The result will be that localities won’t have as much tax money to pay for better roads, schools and other services.
  • Virginia Republicans pay lip service to the evils of government spending and have championed sequestration. Well, look what a fine mess they have gotten us into.

The rest of the Washington area is seeing slowing growth, but appears to be better off. The District’s in-migration was cut in half from 2013 to 2014 but it is still on the plus side. Ditto Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties.

NOVA has benefited enormously from both federal spending and the rise of telecommunications and Web-based businesses. It is uncertain where federal spending might go and maybe increased private sector investment could mitigate the decline. Another bad sign came in 2012 when ExxonMobil announced it was moving its headquarters from Fairfax to Houston.

In any event, this is very bad news for NOVA.

Two Cheers — Venture Funding Rebounds in D.C. Metroplex

vc_funding

Good news/bad news business story out of the Washington area… Venture capital funding is rebounding. Washington-area companies scarfed up $330 million in funding during the first quarter — 55 percent more than in the same quarter of 2014 and the best first quarter since 2001, reports the Washington Business Journal. That’s just what the regional tech economy needs to shake off the effects of federal sequestration and to start growing again.

The not so good news is that the D.C. metropolex, which includes Northern Virginia, is a loooooong way from establishing national leadership in the venture space. The total funding for metro Washington barely amounted to a rounding error for Silicon Valley.

Broken down by state, Virginia ranked 12th in the country for venture funding in the 4th quarter of 2014 (the most recent data available online today), according to data compiled by PricewaterhouseCoopers and the National Venture Capital Association. The $156 million raised by Virginia firms compares to $7.6 billion for California and $1.9 billion for Massachusetts.

Why so little? Northern Virginia has the best educated population of any region in the United States and one of the most tech-savvy workforces. Supposedly, corporations and capital like to locate in markets where there is  a deep labor pool of technical talent. The usual response is that, well, California has Stanford and Berkeley, and Massachusetts has Harvard and MIT, and all Northern Virginia has is George Mason University… and… and… Marymount College. (OK, that’ s not entirely fair. The George Washington University engineering campus is in Loudoun County.)

But what world-class R&D powerhouses can be found in New York or Florida, both of which raised way more money? And how do you explain that Maryland, home to the Johns Hopkins University, which ranks No. 1 in R&D spending, ranks even lower than Virginia?

Clearly, the presence of a strong research university is an advantage when it comes to raising venture capital, but it’s hardly a prerequisite. I’m happy to be proven wrong on this, but I keep coming back to the fact that the corporate culture of Washington-area tech firms is geared to operating in sync with the metabolism of the federal government, not Silicon Valley. Yes, there are exceptions — and, I’d wager, they’re the ones getting the venture funding. But there don’t seem to be enough to change to fundamentally alter the nature of the Northern Virginia economy.

If Northern Virginia is ever going to wean itself from its dependence upon the federal government, we’re going to have to see a lot more venture funding than $150 million a quarter. As for the rest of Virginia, it would be nice to see any venture funding at all!

– JAB

Non-Coal Jobs Thriving in Energy Sector

Coal MinersBy Peter Galuszka

Is there a real “War on Coal” or is it part of a natural transition to more non-polluting and less destructive forms of energy? One way to find out is to track job creation.

A new study at Duke University shows that since 2008, more than 49,000 jobs in the coal industry have been lost. But, about 196,000 jobs – or four times as many – have been created in other energy sectors such as natural gas, solar and wind.

The study suggests that all the gnashing of teeth that President Obama and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are out to ruin the energy sector by killing off coal may be off base.

This has been the cry of Virginia’s utilities, and its few coal firms, along with some members of the business establishment that the EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan to encourage cuts in carbon dioxide by 2030 are unworkable and too threatening to employment in the coal industry since some coal-fired power plants are likely to be shut down. (Of course, some of them have been in operation for 60 years, but never mind).

Overlooked is that as coal jobs die, more energy jobs have been created in natural gas thanks to hydraulic fracking and in renewables like solar and wind which are getting increasingly cheaper.

“Our study shows it has not been a one-for-one replacement,” says Lincoln Pratson, a Duke professor of earth and ocean sciences who is one of the report’s authors.

Hardest hit are the coalfields of southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. Small wonder. The coal is of excellent quality but easy-to-reach seams have been mined out and abundant shale gas has undercut its price power. Coal has also taken hits in Utah, the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana, and Colorado. The biggest job increases are in the Northeast, Southwest, Midwest and West.

Where does Virginia fit in with renewables? Hardly anywhere just yet. Its neighboring states are much farther along. One reason is they have mandatory renewable portfolio standards to force shifts to wind and solar. Even coal-heavy West Virginia had mandatory standards although the legislature just dumped them.

Virginia is just gearing up with solar. As for wind, Dominion has plans for two turbines off Virginia Beach.

Remarkably, this vision of non-coal energy jobs growing four times the amount of coal jobs cut is left out of the debate as Dominion gets the General Assembly to freeze electricity rates and forego State Corporation Commission audits for several years on the theory that it doesn’t know what the EPA will do about carbon dioxide reduction.

And, to show you how bizarre the coal people are, and appeals court in the District of Columbia is ready to shoot down a coal-led attack on the EPA’s carbon rules. Among the plaintiffs is Robert Murray, the iconoclastic CEO of Murray Energy which has been picking up West Virginia coal properties from long-time operator Consol, which obviously is happy to unload them

During the 2012 presidential race, Murray ordered his workers to attend a rally for Mitt Romney under threat of firing. He insists that Obama is trying to put him out of business.

One problem the appeals judges have with his lawsuit is that the rules are only proposed rules. They are not official. EPA is asking for comment by this summer show it can make adjustments. So why is Murray suing?

It would be as if I were to sue Jim Bacon for an idea he might be envisioning. I know it’s a tempting idea, but it would be silly.

The Duke report was published in the peer-reviewed journal, Energy Policy.

Amateur Hour at the General Assembly

virginia_state_capitol502By Peter Galuszka

If you are an ordinary Virginian with deep concerns about how the General Assembly passes laws that impact you greatly, you are pretty much out of luck.

That’s the conclusion of a study by Transparency Virginia, an informal coalition of non-profit public interest groups in a report released this week. Their findings  came after members studied how the 2015 General Assembly operated.

Among their points:

  • Notice of committee hearings was so short in some instances that public participation was nearly impossible.
  • Scores of bills were never given hearings.
  • In the House of Delegates, committees and subcommittees did not bother to record votes on 76 percent of the bills they killed.

“Despite a House rule that all bills shall be considered, not all are. Despite a Senate rule that recorded votes are required, not all are,” states the 21-page report, whose main author is Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. Transparency Virginia is made up of 30 groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, the the Virginia Education Association and the League of Women Voters in Virginia.

The scathing report underscores just how amateurish the General Assembly can be. It only meets for only 45 days in odd-numbered years and 60 days in even-numbered years. The pay is pin money. Delegates make only $17,640 a year and senators earn $18,000 annually.

It is not surprising then that a part-time group of 100 delegates and 40 senators can’t seem to handle their 101 committees and subcommittees that determine whether the consideration of thousands bills proceeds fairly and efficiently.

“A Senate committee chair did not take comment on any bills on the agenda except for the testimony from the guests of two senators who were presenting bills,” the report states. In other cases, legislators were criticized by colleagues for having too many witnesses. Some cut off ongoing debate by motioning to table bills. Bills were “left in committee” never to be considered.

The Virginia Freedom of Information Act requires that open public meetings be announced three working days in advance. A General Assembly session is considered one, long open session. But the FOIA is often subverted by sly legislators who manipulate the agendas of committees or subcommittees or general sessions.

Agendas of the General Assembly are not covered by the FOIA because there is too much work to cram in 45 or 60 days. In the case of local and state governments, similar meetings are, presumably because they meet more regularly. House and Senate rules do not stipulate how much notice needs to be given before a committee or subcommittee session. So, crucial meetings that could kill a bill are sometimes announced suddenly.

The setup favors professional lobbyists who stand guard in the Capitol ready to swoop in to give testimony and peddle influence, alerted by such tools as “Lobbyist-in-a-Box” that tracks the status of bills as they proceed through the legislature. When something important is up, their beepers go off while non-lobbyist citizens with serious interests in bills may be hours away by car.

The report states: “While most of Virginia’s lobbyists and advocates are never more than a few minutes from the statehouse halls, citizens and groups without an advocacy presence may need to travel long distances.” Some may need to reschedule work or family obligations, yet they may get only two hours’ notice of an important meeting. That’s not enough time if they live more than a two-hour drive from Richmond.

The report didn’t address ethics, but this system it portrays obviously favors lobbyists who benefit from Virginia’s historically light-touch approach when it comes to limited gifts. That issue will be addressed today when the General Assembly meets to consider Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s insistence that a new ethics bill address the problem of allowing consecutive gifts of less than $100 to delegates or senators.

The only long-term solution is for Virginia to consider creating a legislature that works for longer periods, is better paid, more professional and must adhere to tighter rules on bill passage. True, some 24 states have a system somewhat like Virginia and only New York, Pennsylvania and California have truly professional legislatures.

The current system was created back in Virginia was more rural and less sophisticated. But it has grown tremendously in population and importance. It’s a travesty that Virginia is stuck with amateur hour when it comes to considering legislation crucial to its citizens’ well-being.

The Fifth Anniversary of Upper Big Branch

A memorial to the Massey Energy miners at Upper Big Branch

A memorial to the Massey Energy miners at Upper Big Branch

By Peter Galuszka

Five years ago this morning, miners near Montcoal, W.Va. clambered into low, truck-like vehicles called “mantrips” for a nearly-hour-long ride to their positions at Upper Big Branch, a coal mine owned by a subsidiary of Richmond-based Massey Energy.

Some of the miners were queasy because the mine, known as UBB, was especially gassy, had substantial air ventilation problems and lots of coal dust. Even worse, the chief executive of Massey Energy, Donald L. Blankenship, was known as a hard-charging bean counter who liked to cut corners and maximize profits, investigators say.

As the shift neared its end, a “long wall” machine that rips into coal seams hit a clump of slate. Sparks flew from the badly-maintained long wall device. A jet of methane flame about the size of a basketball flared out. Safety measures, such as streams of waters designed to extinguish such flames, didn’t work. As miners scrambled for their lives, an enormous blast, fed by high levels of coal dust, roared through seven miles of shafts, blowing apart or suffocating 29 miners.

It was the worst disaster in this country in 40 years. Several investigations gave scathing reports of Massey’s lax attitude about mine safety. One report was titled “Industrial Homicide.”

So what’s been done to improve mine safety lives? Not very much.

Federal legislation such as the Robert C. Byrd bill that would give federal regulators subpoena power when probing safety violations has gotten nowhere in Congress.

Worried about slumps in coal production caused by as flood of natural gas from fracking drilling methods, the West Virginia legislature has come up with the “Creating Coal Jobs and Safety Act.” You read that right. The bill puts “jobs” first and “safety” second.

As W.Va. Del. Barbara Fleischauer of Monongalia County puts it: “There’s not anything in this bill that improves safety, nothing. And I can’t believe, after all the fires and explosions we’ve had in this state, recently, we would, and you know what they are; Upper Big Branch, Aracoma, Sego, that we would ever consider rolling back safety protections.”

The Associated Press reports that while mine deaths are down, thanks because of the competition against coal by natural gas. Mine inspections spiked after UBB and accidents, while they still occur, are down.

But, the AP says, the coal dust problem hasn’t been resolved. Massey had been fined continuously for not keeping levels of coal dust low. There was so much coal dust in the mine that autopsies of dead miners (at least the ones that had enough long tissue that could be recovered after the massive blast) all showed evidence of black lung disease, which was supposed to have been rooted out years before by regulatory upgrades.

Coal dust problems are still evident. In January, federal officials found excess methane and coal dust at Mill Branch Coal Corp’s Osaka mine in Wise County, Va. Another mine, Camp Creek in Wayne County, W.Va., had been cited 64 times in the last two years for failing to follow ventilation plans. And, a miner was recently killed at a showcase Virginia mine.

What do these mines have in common? They are owned by Bristol-based Alpha Natural Resources, which bought failing Massey Energy in 2011 for $7 billion. Alpha tried to absorb Massey miners and retrain them in its “Running Right” safety program, but it obviously has lingering problems.

Alpha has been lying off many miners because of the production downturns and lack of demand for both steam and metallurgical coal. After enduring millions of dollars in losses, its stock has trading at a dollar and a penny. Cash short Alpha has had to sell its new headquarters building just off of Interstate 81 in the Bristol area.

Blankenship, meanwhile, is slated to go on trial for criminal charges related to UBB in Beckley W.Va. on April 20. It is the first time a coal chief executive has been so indicted. Blankenship’s lawyers are trying to get a change of venue, claiming that he is so well-known and disliked in southern West Virginia that he can’t get a fair trial. For a time, he won a gag order preventing anyone, including families of the deceased UBB miners, from discussing the trial but it was overturned by the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond.

His trial may be delayed, but it won’t be much of a victory. Alpha Natural Resources, meanwhile, is refusing to pay his legal bills.

Note: Peter A. Galuszka is author of “Thunder on the Mountain: Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal.” It was first published by St. Martin’s Press in September 2012 and is now available in paperback from West Virginia University Press.

 

Pulp and Circumstance in Chesterfield

Gov. Terry McAuliffe talks with Jerry Peng of Tranlin

Gov. Terry McAuliffe talks with Jerry Peng of Tranlin

By Peter Galuszka

Jim Bacon has a fascinating cover story about the future of Short Pump in the latest Henrico Monthly magazine.

Not to be outdone, I humbly point out that I have a cover story in the Chesterfield Monthly, a sister publication.

I explain how Chesterfield County, the state and other officials landed Shandong Tranlin, an advanced paper mill in the eastern part of Chesterfield. At $2 billion, it’s the biggest Chinese greenfield project ever planned in this country.

The story actually starts when Jerry Peng, a Chinese businessman who happened to go to the Darden School at the University of Virginia, went to the U.S. to look for a place for a new type of paper plant. After becoming frustrated looking on the U.S. West Coast, he plugged his Hoo connections in Virginia and “Project Cavalier” was born.

In less than two years, Virginia and Chesterfield landed the plum. It will employ 2,000 within a few years. It is a story about how county, state and private industry worked quickly and well together. The whirlwind of negotiations credits both former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, current Gov. Terry McAuliffe and their staff.

The pulp mill is expected to be less polluting because it does not use trees for pulp but uses leftover farmfield waste such as wheat and corn stalk. There is little air pollution because most processes involve steam. There is no extremely toxic dioxin produced because there is no bleaching of paper product. Leftovers are then collected into a “black liquor” that supposedly can be used as a less polluting farm fertilizer which may be used by Virginia farmers that now use polluting fertilizers harmful to the Chesapeake Bay.

It just so happened that Chesterfield had all the right ingredients – proximity to farm field waste; ample highway and rail connections, a large, skilled workforce; deepwater access, lots of process water from the James River and plenty of locally-available power.

It’s is part of a switch in economic policy by the Middle Kingdom. After three decades of drawing in foreign investment, Beijing is now looking for advanced industrial countries. That is why a Chinese firm spent $4 billion to buy Smithfield Foods. Now, there’s Shandong Tranlin.

I do have my doubts about the much-touted environmental benefits of the project, having been to China and seen the enormous industrial pollution there. Air quality in Beijing or Shanghai is routinely many times the highest permissible levels in the West. But plenty of people seem to think that Shandong Tranlin is on to something.

Let’s hope so.

(Note: the Henrico and Chesterfield Monthly are doing some interesting new journalism in the area. Watch for them.)

NRDC Says Clean Power Plan Benefits Virginia

coal plant burnsBy Peter Galuszka

In a sweeping contradiction of the positions of Dominion Virginia Power and assorted politicians and regulators, the Natural  Resources Defense Council has issued a report saying that Virginia will benefit by following a proposed federal plan to cut carbon dioxide.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Administration has put forth a proposed plan for comment that would cut carbon dioxide pollution intensity — measured in pounds per megawatt hour of electricity– in the state by 38 percent by 2030.

The draft plan brought on protests from Dominion, the State Corporation Commission, Gov. Terry McAuliffe, The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and many legislators who say compliance with the plan would cost ratepayers an extra $5 billion to $6 billion in rate hikes and force the closure of some coal-fired plants.

The situation was considered so dire that Dominion convinced the General Assembly to pass a bill letting it freeze its rate base and avoid audits by the SCC for five years.

Reading the NRDC document is like reading an instruction manual from another planet. The key point:

“The Commonwealth is already 80 percent on the way toward achieving the EPA Clean Power Plan’s carbon reduction for the state,” it says. The remaining 20 percent goal could be reached by pressing on with renewable energy and energy efficiency while developing a robust new work force that would total about 5,600 “and the state’s households and businesses would save $1 billion on their electric bills by 2020.”

One reason for the progress in achieving the goal is that Dominion has converted coal plants to natural gas or had announced plans to shut down some aging coal plants .

The NDRC notes that the Clean Power Plan does not specifically target coal-fired plants or other fossil fuel units and leaves it to the utilities to choose how they want to achieve the goals. Among ways to do this are to make coal plants more efficient, use natural gas plants more effectively by switching them on before coal plants and increasing renewables and efficiency.

Deutsche Bank reports that by 2016, solar power (which only just beginning to be tapped) will be cheaper than the average retail power, the report says.

The NRDC report brings up another topic that rarely is discussed in Virginia. Switching to cleaner power can “usher in climate and health benefits worth an estimated $55 billion to $93 billion by 2030. This could prevent from 2,700 to 6,600 premature deaths — a topic rarely broached in Richmond.

As for concerns of base loaded reliability, the report says that PJM, the regional grid to which Virginia belongs, can kick in during a major and unexpected plant outage with 3,350 megawatts of backup electricity.

Another interesting fact: NDRC reports that coal’s share of Virginia’s generation is now only about 20 percent. Dominion had reported it as being up to 49 percent of its mix a few years back. It is hard to understand given that Dominion has been shutting down coal-plants that are 50 or 60 years old. Opponents of the EPA’s new rules claim the plants are being shut down because of EPA’s “War on Coal” but simple age is the more logical reason.

In any event, it is amazing that hardly any of the points raised by NRDC were part of the harried discussion against the proposed Clean Power Plan and Dominion’s almost hysterical need for rate freezes and freedom from audits so it could have time assessing just how damaging the proposed Clean Power Plan would be.

What’s needed is an honest and transparent discussion and review of what the plan really is, how much it will really cost and how its goals can be achieved. That debate cannot be held captive by bankrolled legislators and regulators bullied by utilities.

A New, Improved Ken Cuccinelli?

ken-cuccinelliBy Peter Galuszka

Is one-time conservative firebrand Ken Cuccinelli undergoing a makeover?

The hard line former Virginia attorney general who lost a bitter gubernatorial race to Terry McAuliffe in 2013 is now helping run an oyster farm and sounding warning alarms about a rising police state.

This is remarkable switch from the man who battled a climatologist in court over global warming; tried to prevent children of illegal immigrants born in this country from getting automatic citizenship; schemed to shut down legal abortion clinics; tried to keep legal protection away from state gay employees; and wanted to arm Medicaid investigators with handguns.

Yet on March 31, Cuccinelli was the co-author with Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia of an opinion column in the Richmond Times Dispatch. Their piece pushes bipartisan bills passed by the General Assembly that would limit the use of drones and electronic devices to read and record car license plate numbers called license plate readers or LPRs.

Cuccinelli and Gastanaga say that McAuliffe may amend the bills in ways that would expand police powers instead of protect privacy. “The governor’s proposed amendments to the LPR bills gut privacy protections secured by the legislation,” they write. The governor’s amendments would extend the time police could keep data collected from surveillance devices and let police collect and save crime-related data from drones used during flights that don’t involve law enforcement, they claim.

When not protecting Virginians from Big Brother, Cuccinelli’s been busy oyster farming. He has helped start a farm for the tasty mollusks on the historic Chesapeake Bay island of Tangier. According to an article in The Washington Post, Cuccinelli got involved when he was practicing law in Prince William County after he left office.

He would visit the business and get roped into working at odd jobs. He apparently enjoyed the physical labor and the idea that oysters are entirely self-sustaining and help cleanse bay water.

Environmentalists scoff at the idea, noting that as attorney general, Cuccinelli spent several years investigating Michael Mann, a former University of Virginia climatologist who noted that humans were responsible for the generation of more carbon dioxide emissions and that has brought on climate change.

Some have pointed out that if Cuccinelli had had his way, he would have helped quash climate science, generated even more global warming and sped up the inundation of Tangier Island by rising water levels.

It will be interesting to see if Cuccinelli intends to rebrand himself for future political campaigns and how he tries to reinvent himself.

Nerdistans in Trouble

nerdistan

How badly are suburban office parks getting clobbered in the current real estate environment? Take a look at the Westfields Corporate Center near Washington Dulles International Airport. Two buildings known as Washington Technology Park I and II were appraised at $187.5 million at the peak of the 2000s-era real estate boom. They were just reappraised for $61.1 million — a 68% reduction, according to the Washington Post.

How could that happen? WaPo reporter Jonathan O’Connell provides the background: First, the buildings lost key tenants as the slowdown in defense spending gutted Northern Virginia’s defense-contracting sector. Defense giant Northrup Grumman paid $4.7 million to get out of the lease. Government consulting firm CSC cut back its space from 180,000 square feet to 20,000. Meanwhile, the office vacancy rate climbed throughout Northern Virginia, driving down lease rates generally. Then, on top of that, writes O’Connell:

Buildings far from public transit and walkable amenities like restaurants began to suffer in particular, as young workers flocked to more urban, transit-accessible neighborhoods. So far this year, 92 percent of all office leases of 20,000 square feet or more are within half a mile of an existing or planned Metro station, according to the services firm JLL.

A decade ago, urban geographer Richard Florida famously termed the sterile and isolated office campuses as “nerdistans,” predicting that they would have little appeal to the rising generation of the so-called “creative class.” It has taken a while, but Florida’s insight has become the new conventional wisdom.

The two Washington Technology Park buildings have other problems as well. The owner, Corporate Office Properties Trust (COPT) based in Columbia, Md., has been unable to keep up payments on the $150 million in debt it took on to acquire the buildings. Unable to renegotiate terms, the company stopped making payments. The debt has been transferred to a firm that manages distressed loans. COPT has blamed the drop in market value in part on the property’s fractured ownership.

Bacon’s bottom line: The Washington Technology Park buildings may be an extreme case, but they are indicative of systemic problems in the Northern Virginia real estate market — and suburban real estate markets generally.  In a down market, some properties suffer worse than others. There’s nothing wrong with the buildings. The problem is location. The worst off are office parks on the metropolitan fringe offering none of the community amenities — walkable urbanism, access to mass transit — that workers and employers are increasingly looking for.

Residential development continues in outlying suburban counties because the population continues to grow and urban cores can’t infill fast enough to handle the surge in demand. Not so with commercial development. Businesses are moving to more space-efficient work patterns and they need less space per employee than they once did. That problem is compounded in Northern Virginia, where the market over-built commercial space in anticipation that the 2000s economic boom would continue forever. With the shift in consumer preference to walkable urbanism, car-dependent Nerdistans are the big losers. We’re accustomed to the specter of ghost malls. Don’t be surprised if we soon start seeing ghost office parks.

– JAB

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.