Virginia broadband availability map. Source: Dominion Energy “Broadband Feasibility Report”
by James A. Bacon
Virginia’s investor-owned utilities, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power Co., could become key players in the Northam administration’s push to extend broadband access to rural communities.
A State Corporation Commission ruling is expected today on an Apco proposal to extend “middle mile” broadband in partnership with Bluefield-based GigaBeam Networks, which will provide “last mile” connectivity to retail customers in Grayson County.
And last month, Dominion announced a partnership with Prince George Electric Cooperative’s RURALBAND subsidiary to provide Internet connectivity to 3,600 customers in Surry County. Dominion’s “middle-mile” service would link Prince George local network with high-capacity fiber-optic trunk lines.
The logic behind these partnerships is that, spurred by the Grid Transformation and Security Act of 2018, Dominion and Apco are already spending tens of millions of dollars to install broadband in their electric distribution systems. They can add enough additional capacity to serve nearby rural communities at marginal additional cost. Continue reading
by James A. Bacon
Solar energy is the cheapest source of electricity now available, solar advocates tell us, and that’s a big reason we should build more of it in Virginia. At the same time, says the solar lobby, the industry needs local-government tax breaks, in particular a state-mandated 80% exemption from local machine-and-tool taxes.
“If that tax incentive was not in place, you could not have the had the kind of development that was necessary,” David Murray, executive director of the Maryland-DC-Delaware-Virginia Energy Industry Association, tells the Register & Bee website at GoDanRiver.com.
So, which is it? Is solar the cheapest electricity source available, or the cheapest just when poor rural local governments are compelled by the state to grant massive tax breaks?
Pittsylvania County, the county adjacent to the City of Danville, has one solar farm in operation and has granted permitting for eight others. The county expects to benefit from two revenue streams: property taxes and machine & tool taxes. Under legislation in effect since 2016, small solar projects (less than 20 megawatts capacity) are entirely exempt from the M&T tax, while larger projects are 80% exempt. Moreover, under the State Corporation Commission depreciation schedule, utility-scale solar is taxed at 90% of value in the first five years but only 10% of value by year 25. Continue reading
by James A. Bacon
Last week Governor Ralph Northam announced $18.3 million in Virginia Telecommunication Initiative grants to support 12 projects across the state. Leveraging $35 million in local and private matching funds, the projects will connect about 36,000 households, including thousands of businesses and “community anchor” institutions — an average state subsidy of roughly $500 per household on average.
Promoting rural broadband is a rare example of widespread bipartisan agreement in Virginia. Rural areas and small towns need high-bandwidth Internet access to compete for talent and corporate investment. That said, low-density human settlement patterns are expensive to serve with broadband, and the state has limited funds, about $35 million a year, to devote to this purpose.
Not all government-funded projects are created equal. Among the 39 applications submitted, some offer a better Return on Investment (ROI) than others. What’s the story behind these 12 winners? The governor’s press release doesn’t provide information beyond the size of the awards. But a number of local news stories provide additional details. Continue reading
Photo credit: WDBJ 7
by Dick Hall-Sizemore
The voters in one of the most conservative and rural parts of the state recently acted contrary to stereotype and voted to raise their taxes. Furthermore, that action was made possible by legislation sponsored by their Republican delegate in the General Assembly
Halifax County has been wrestling for several years with the issue of replacing the county’s lone high school. The general consensus has been that something needed to be done, either renovation or replacement. The daunting question was the projected cost: $88 to $99 million, depending on the option chosen. The county already had committed (under court order) to incurring substantial debt to substantially renovate the courthouse. Therefore, it was felt that the current tax base could not support the debt needed for the high school project, without a substantial, and politically unlikely, increase in the tax rate. Continue reading
Beneficiaries… or victims… of a $15 minimum wage?
by Hans Bader
It doesn’t make sense to ban jobs that pay a living wage, just because an employer can’t afford to pay a still higher wage. But that is what a $15 minimum wage does in regions where living costs and wages are low. There are cheap regions to live in where $11 an hour supports a decent lifestyle. If someone can afford decent food, clothing, and housing on $11 an hour, and their employer can’t afford to pay them more than $12 an hour, it is pointless and cruel to ban their job just because it pays less than $15 per hour.
But that is what a $15 minimum wage does. It bans jobs that pay less than $15 per hour, regardless of whether an individual employer and worker have a good reason for a lower hourly wage.
Virginia is now poised to join seven other left-leaning states, such as New Jersey, in imposing a $15 minimum wage. The incoming majority leader of the state senate, Richard Saslaw, D-Springfield, has introduced a bill to increase the state’s minimum wage to $15 by 2025, and then adjust it for inflation in future years. Every Democrat in the state senate has already voted for a similar bill in the past, and Democrats took control of Virginia’s legislature this November. Continue reading
by James A. Bacon
Employment growth in Virginia’s Appalachian region since 2002 has been the weakest of all five states in the Central Appalachian region, according to data contained in a recent Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) report, “Industrial Make-up of the Appalachian Region: Employment and Earnings, 2002-2017.”.
Making matters worse, job growth in Central Appalachia was the worst in all of Appalachia, which was half that of the United States as a whole.
The growth gap between Virginia on the one hand and Tennessee and North Carolina on the other has been particularly marked, the gap between Virginia on the one hand and West Virginia and Kentucky not quite as bad.
Earnings growth in Appalachia also has severely lagged that of the United States as a whole — 17.5% compared to 27.3%. Continue reading
by James A. Bacon
You most likely missed it because it has gotten next to zero publicity, but the Commonwealth does have an economic development strategy for rural Virginia.
In 2017, a group of rural development stakeholders come together to form a “Rural Think Tank” to identify policies the state should pursue to position smaller metros and rural areas for economic growth. After deliberating, the twelve think tank members came up with five strategic priorities, as described in the latest edition of the Virginia Economic Review, a publication of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP). This second edition of the quarterly publication is devoted to “America’s Rural Growth Challenge.”
The priorities include:
Ubiquitous broadband access. Topping the list is ubiquitous broadband access, a priority embraced by the Northam administration that receives broad bipartisan support. The ability to plug into the Internet is a necessity not only for business growth but is essential to education, healthcare, social connectivity, and the quality of life. As the Virginia Economic Review quotes Didi Caldwell, past chair of the Site Selection Guild, put it, “Broadband is to the 21st century was electrification was to the 20th. Rural communities need it to thrive and survive.” Continue reading
Tom Barkin, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond
by James A. Bacon
A couple of days ago I lamented that the purveyors of the “conventional wisdom” at a recent Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond conference on rural development had little new or insightful to offer. I must offer a partial retraction. A friend has forwarded to me a speech by bank President Tom Barkin. While most of the points he made were familiar, some were new to me — and, hey, I figure if they’re new to me, someone who has been tracking rural development issues for some 30 years, they’re probably new to many others.
In that speech, “Moving the Needle in Rural Communities,” Barkin discusses the disappearance of “anchor institutions” in rural communities such as banks, hospitals and colleges. I’ve discussed the closure of rural hospitals on this blog, but always in the context of the rural health care crisis, never the rural economic crisis. I’ve also written about the travails of small, private liberal arts colleges, but, again, only in the context of higher education affordability, never the rural economic crisis. And, frankly, it never occurred to me to write about the disappearance of banks. However, the concept of anchor institutions seems to be a useful one for understanding rural economic health, and their continued erosion is a worrisome trend.
So, here’s what Barkin had to say: Continue reading
Declining geographic mobility. Graph credit: McKinsey Global Institute
by James A. Bacon
A recurring question on this blog and elsewhere is why don’t more Americans (and rural Virginians) move to areas of greater economic opportunity? Why do they remain stuck in communities with high unemployment and low wages? Americans have always moved to economic opportunity in the past. What’s different now?
Those questions give rise to another set of questions. If people refuse to budge, should the rest of society take pity on them and subsidize their choice to stay put? As Don Rippert commented in a previous post, “The best thing the state can do is issue relocation vouchers to rural residents.”
The authors of a McKinsey Global Institute report, “The Future of Work in America,” tackles the geographic-mobility question. The biggest factor, they suggest, is the vast and growing gap in the cost of living between prospering cities and lagging communities. “Variations in the cost of living — and particularly in housing costs — are a clear contributing factor holding back geographic mobility in the United States. The cities offering the greatest job opportunity also happen to be expensive places to live.” Continue reading
Projected job growth by 2030. (Darker colors indicate faster job growth). Source: McKinsey Global Institute. Click for larger image.
by James A. Bacon
A handful of megacities have captured a majority of U.S. job growth since the Great Recession and could win 60% of job growth through 2030, according to a July McKinsey Global Institute report. A middle tier of “stable” metropolitan areas and thriving niche cities will continue to see job growth, though at a more modest rate than the megacities, while the bottom tier of lagging metros and rural areas will see only marginal growth, if any.
The differential rates of job growth will be driven in part of the next wave of automation, which will displace many office-support, food-service, manufacturing, and customer-service jobs, while a dynamic economy creates more jobs in healthcare, STEM fields, business services, and work requiring personal interaction, says the report, “The Future of Work in America: People and Places, Today and Tomorrow.” “While there could be positive net job growth at the national level, new jobs may not appear in the same places. The challenge will be in addressing local mismatches and help workers gain new skills.”
If McKinsey’s “midpoint” job projections are close to the mark, the Washington metropolitan area will continue to dominate job growth in Virginia, while “stable” metros like Richmond and Hampton Roads will contribute to a lesser degree. The Shenandoah Valley and Roanoke-Lynchburg area will see marginal growth, and the rest of the state negative job growth.
These conclusions put a filigree on what everyone already knows about the challenges facing rural Virginia. What, then, is to be done? McKinsey offers some general strategies for adapting to our brave new world that sound remarkably similar to what I had to say in yesterday’s blog post about rural development. And I quote: Continue reading
Shenandoah Valley: Not all rural areas are created equal
by James A. Bacon
Virginia’s rural communities face a hard slog maintaining their local economies in a globalizing world in which their traditional advantages, cheap land and labor, are no longer competitive. That slog looks even harder when leading thinkers are so bereft of fresh ideas. The utter failure to think beyond the conventional wisdom was on full display, as can be gleaned from this report by Virginia Business, at a conference hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond about rural economic development in the Fifth District, which includes Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and the Carolinas,
There’s nothing wrong with the conventional wisdom as far as it goes. Yes, rural areas need to fine tune their workforce training programs. Yes, rural communities need better broadband access. Yes, rural areas need to retain local anchor institutions like hospitals, banks and colleges. Yes, above all, rural communities need to do a better job of retaining their college-educated youth.
“Changing the prospects of a town, it seems to me, starts with aligning the mindsets of the people in that town,” said Richmond Fed President Thomas I. Barkin. “And a great metric is whether the kids who grow up and go to school there choose to come back.”
Yes, yes, yes — but how? Continue reading
by James A. Bacon
It turns out there’s not just a hospital shortage and a physician shortage in rural Virginia — there’s a nursing shortage. A couple of articles over the weekend highlighted growing problems with health care access in rural and small-town western Virginia communities.
Community leaders in Patrick County have given up on bringing back a local hospital from the dead, reports the Associated Press. Efforts to resuscitate the old Pioneer Community Hospital were hampered by complex licensing issues and the high cost of retrofitting the 1960s-era hospital building, which has deteriorated since it closed two years ago and suffers from extensive deferred maintenance issues.
Local officials now are looking for other ways to deliver health care services to the mountainous county where the population is declining and aging, the AP says. In the meantime, still-functioning hospitals are shutting down floors and units due to an inability to staff them with nurses. Continue reading
Off limits to utility-scale solar? Civil War battlefield locations in Virginia.
by James A. Bacon
Culpeper County prohibits construction of solar farms on Civil War battlefields. Now a proposal under consideration by the Board of Supervisors would discourage large solar projects adjacent to battlefield land held in historic easement, reports the Culpeper Star-Exponent. And that restriction is just one of many changes to the county’s Utility Scale Solar Facility Development Policy under review by the board.
Last year the board approved the 1,000-acre Greenwood Solar project over local opposition. Since then resistance to the land-consuming facilities has gotten more organized. One group, Citizens for Responsible Solar, has actively pursued a policy of delay and encumber to restrict development of large-scale solar farms. Last month Cricket Solar pulled a proposal for a 1,600-acre solar farm in the county. Meanwhile, local opposition has stalled progress on utility-scale projects in other counties.
On the state level, it is the policy of the Northam administration, the General Assembly, the environmental community, and Dominion Energy to boost the contribution of solar power to Virginia’s energy mix. People may disagree about how far and how fast to go, but just about everyone agrees on the desirability of having more solar than we have now. But opposition at the local level has emerged as a significant barrier to large-scale deployment of solar. Continue reading
by Peter Galuszka
U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-7th) has drawn lots of attention for her Rural Broadband Summit at Louisa County High School in Mineral on Aug. 17, which got plenty of comment from primarily rural residents unhappy that they can’t get access to quick, reliable Internet service.
Good for Spanberger, who beat Republican Dave Brat in last year’s hotly contested election. But this all brings questions: after so many years why are we still facing this?
I am now in my second decade of writing about the lack of broadband access in rural and inner city areas.
A piece I did for Chief Executive magazine about 10 years ago explored how mostly minority business owners in inner Philadelphia couldn’t afford broadband because the big providers, which would include Comcast and Verizon, cherry pick their locations. The firms wanted to boost margins so they pushed “triple play” (Internet, telephone and television) access in wealthier areas. Those not so privileged had to struggle with higher costs and access issues. “I don’t need 400 channels,” an inner city business owner told me. Continue reading
Everyone can agree, I think, that broadband Internet service is an essential utility for Virginia’s rural areas. There appears to be a wide base of support for the commonwealth to expend modest sums of money to help extend broadband to rural Virginians where the population density is insufficient to attract fiber-optic and wireless investment by private telecom companies. But I do have one question: What’s wrong with satellite broadband?
My question is prompted by an op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch today by Evan Feinman and Courtney Dozier, the point persons in Governor Ralph Northam’s bid to expand rural broadband access. They describe programs that use public dollars to grease partnerships between localities, internet service providers, and electric utilities. Since the beginning of the Northam administration, they note, state-funded programs have helped establish 71,000 connections to homes and businesses. And that’s just the beginning of what they have planned. They are asking for tens of millions of dollars more.
That all sounds great. When it comes to rural economic development, investing in broadband may be the most effective way to spend public dollars. Still, what’s wrong with satellite technology? Continue reading