Four Goals to Revitalize Southwest Virginia

by Steve Haner

Dear Southwest Virginia:

I read with interest Wade Gilley’s recent Roanoke Times column on steps Southwest Virginia should take to brighten its economic future. Sure, appoint another commission, but here are some more concrete thoughts: Stop expecting Richmond or Washington or anybody else to provide the capital or the leadership.

I spent twenty years living in Roanoke, ten of them with the Roanoke Times & World-News, but we left Roanoke more than 30 years ago to move to Richmond. My emotional attachment to the region is just as deep as ever, and on my mother’s side the family ties go back to the Revolution. That talented and highly-educated family is largely gone: north, east, west and south. My parents and their siblings all grew up in Bluefield. Of the fourteen people in my generation, one lives in the region now. Of their twenty-plus offspring, one lives there now.

So, goal one is to stop exporting your talent. You have the educational institutions – Virginia Tech, in my opinion, provides the best value for the dollar in Virginia, and the smaller schools and community colleges in the region are all excellent. I shocked a young lady recently by saying: “Of course I’ve heard of Emory and Henry! My grandfather went there!” But you need to figure out how to provide the jobs, low cost of living and amenities that make Tech and Radford and E&H grads stay in the region.

Goal two is to regionalize, regionalize, regionalize. I’ve been out of Roanoke for three decades, but it doesn’t look like the various Roanoke Valley governments are working much closer together than they were. Hampton Roads cities and counties consolidated decades ago but the localities in your region remain fractured, and deep down may still think like competitors. Look again at consolidation in the Roanoke Valley. Every southwest locality should be in conversation with its neighbors about what services they can share and whether two governments should become one, even if that means fewer jobs for politicians to hold and pass out.

Goal three is to restructure your business taxes to make it impossible for businesses not to include you on the short list for locations. Get rid of your machinery and tools taxes entirely. If not that (but it would be a dynamite step) find some other bold tactic that puts the region on the map. It will be the combination of the workforce and economic incentives that works.

Goal four is to embrace and celebrate growth. Watching the battle over the pipelines is not sending warm and fuzzy signals to anybody who might bring in another proposal requiring major permits and land disturbance, or who needs gas for operations. My experience in Roanoke decades ago was that a major proposal always brought out the whiners afraid of growth and enamored of the sleepy status quo. The jobs usually went elsewhere.

Covering the state Capitol for that paper, I was always amused by the focus on small, ill-advised grant programs to support this or that local activity. Explore Park. Center in the Square. Advocates always touted them as essential to economic development, but they were small stuff. The politicians complied and got a bullet point for their brochure. Thousands flock to Explore now, right? Today the screaming is about loss of federal handouts. Dependency as a state of mind is just as destructive to an economy as it is to an individual.

Stephen D. Haner, principal of Black Walnut Strategies, lives in Richmond.

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6 responses to “Four Goals to Revitalize Southwest Virginia”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    Good Article!

    RE; economic development without depending on the Feds!


    You wanna hear something funny? In the Fredericksburg Area – more than a few “ideas” for economic development usually translate into ” what can we do to bring govt agencies and contractors down our way”!

    I think if Fredericksburg were somewhere else in Va – they’d have the same problems…

    but for ROVA , hard questions have to be asked – along the lines of what kinds of employers are looking for a workforce that has a significant percentage of people on the low end of education attainment?

    Used to be smaller manufacturers sought ought those places for cheaper labor… for less complex manufacturing …

    Va Tech is the place to focus – but you’ll have to import the more highly educated… which you can if you capture some percentage of out-of-region/out-of-state VaTech grads…

    The other truth is that a lot of high tech has always been incubated from the govt… from microprocessors, to GPS, to drones, to AI, etc.

    A lot of the research done at Universities like VaTech is govt grants…

    Don’t turn it down or avoid it..use it..

  2. Acbar Avatar

    The WSJ today has this relevant and fascinating look at rural economic decline generally:

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      Let me guess.. this is due to liberals also. I’m sure Bacon has a post coming up shortly outlining where liberal policies have caused this..just like they caused the inner-city rot…

  3. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    No, but it may explain why their votes can be won by appeals to identity politics and efforts to blame their problems on immigrants, trade policies, or income transfer programs (excuse me, social justice and fairness programs!)

    Actually I haven’t paid the toll for WSJ so I can’t read it….

  4. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Here’s one way:

    Also, the Journal had a curious piece about making abandoned coal mines into pump storage bins with wind power included. The wind turbines would generate power when the wind is blowing and they’d also fill a pond with water above a fitted-out cold coal mine. When wind is low (solar could be used, too), the water would be released into a chamber below to spin power. Dominion is supposed to be involved along with APco.

  5. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    Steve – pretty good advice in my view. NoVA has Uncle Sam, but extremely high cost of living and traffic from hell that is only going to get much worse. Keep in mind that the TPB concluded that even if every conceivable road and transit project is built, mobility and congestion are largely going to stay the same. And there’s no money to build everything.

    Every place in the United States has tradeoffs. SW VA needs to market its strengths and try to improve its weaknesses. And only its residents can do that.

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