Virginia’s unemployment rate is the lowest it’s been in about 20 years, but areas such as Southside Virginia still lag behind most of the commonwealth when it comes to employment.
“All regions in our state don’t have that same unemployment rate,” said Virginia Secretary of Commerce and Trade Brian Ball, during a speech Wednesday at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research.
About 100 community leaders attended a Regional Economic Summit held at the Institute. The event was hosted by the Danville Pittsylvania County Chamber of Commerce and sponsored by Sovah Health, Dewberry, First Piedmont Corporation, Danville Community College, the Institute and the Danville Register & Bee.
Virginia’s unemployment rate is 2.8 percent, Ball said.
While Danville and Pittsylvania County have higher rates, the city’s has dropped from 5.9 percent to 4.4 percent and the county’s has fallen from 4.6 percent to 3.2 percent since Gov. Ralph Northam took office in January 2018.
“A lot of good things are happening in this region,” Ball said.
Northam has visited the Dan River Region nine times as governor — to make economic development announcements during several of those visits. There have been 1,300 new jobs and $150 million in capital investment in Southside Virginia during his tenure so far, according to his statistics.
“That’s real job growth and real investment,” Ball said.
He pointed to North Carolina-based Panaceutics bringing 70 jobs and investing $5.8 million to move into a building in the Ringgold East Industrial Park as one example, as well as Essel Propack’s announcement of a $31 million expansion.
He also compared debt collection firm PRA’s announcement that it was bringing 500 jobs to Danville to Amazon’s 25,000 jobs coming to the Washington, D.C., area. Taking into account the two communities’ relative sizes and populations, Ball said, those 500 jobs will have the same impact in the Dan River Region as the 25,000 jobs will have in Northern Virginia.
“Five-hundred jobs here is huge,” he said.
Ball credited Danville’s and Pittsylvania County’s collaboration for playing a major role in attracting industries. He told local leaders in attendance they could teach a class on collaboration for their neighboring localities.
“When communities work together and support one another, companies notice that,” Ball said, adding that they are more comfortable investing in areas where there is no squabbling among localities.
He also had praise for Southern Virginia Mega Site at Berry Hill in Pittsylvania County, which was given tier four status (out of five) in August 2018. The designation means the 3,528-acre site is “infrastructure ready” for industry, that all infrastructure is in place or can be delivered in 12 months, and all permit issues have been identified and quantified.
“You’re in the game for somebody to come in here and do something,” Ball said. “Your marketing efforts in developing this site will pay off.”
Evan Feinman, executive director of the Virginia Tobacco Commission, said during a speech that many Virginians lack broadband access.
“We’ve got 660,000 Virginians with no broadband access,” Feinman said. “That is an economic injustice.”
Children in homes without broadband access do not fare as well in school as those who have it, he said.
“Post-secondary outcomes are not as good,” said Feinman, who also is chief broadband advisor to Northam.
Feinman said he would like to see everyone in Virginia have broadband access within 10 years.
As for infrastructure, Southside Virginia does not have enough smaller- and medium-sized industrial sites, he said.
The Tobacco Commission has moved away from giving out large amounts of money for sites, he added.
“The days of writing $20 million and $30 million checks for sites are over,” he said.
Danville Economic Development Director Telly Tucker, who spoke on a panel with other regional officials during the summit, said Ball seemed sincere in his statements about the region.
“I appreciated many of the things that they [Ball and Feinman] had to say,” Tucker said. “It gives us a lot of homework to do.”
John Crane reports for the Danville Register & Bee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org> or (434) 791-7987.