Corey Stewart, who described Danville as a “boarded-up” ghost town in a recent debate, went last week to the Southside city to press his case that “unfair” trade deals pushed by “the Washington elite” have wrecked the economy there.
This is an appealing argument that works the same way a magician’s trick does — through misdirection.
Stewart gets Danville’s history wrong. He also gets its present and future wrong, too. Let’s unpack what the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate had to say, because it’s important to understand exactly why he’s wrong if we’re going to have a productive conversation about the economy of not just Danville, but any locality outside the urban crescent.
Stewart begins with a series of undeniable facts: Danville was once a small industrial powerhouse, its economy based on textiles and tobacco. Then some trade deals happened — the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 and China’s membership in the World Trade Organization in 2001 — and now those textile plants are gone. Ever since 1990, Danville’s population has been shrinking. From that sequence of events, it’s easy to make the case that free trade killed Danville. There’s some truth to that, to be sure, except that Stewart connects the wrong dots and comes to the wrong conclusion. Here’s why: Employment in American textiles started to decline in the 1950s, long before the trade deals that Stewart blames for their demise. Dan River Mills, which once employed 6,500 in Danville, hit its first hard times and started shutting down factories in the 1980s. Again, that was long before the trade deals Stewart cites. Those trade deals no doubt accelerated the demise of the American textile industry, but here’s the key point that cannot be stressed hard enough: That industry would have died anyway. Would the absence of those trade deals have saved textiles? To believe that is to believe a fantasy.
Here’s one of the central economic realities we must face: If a company can move its low-skilled jobs overseas, it will. That’s a harsh reality for the workers, but an undeniable one. Americans like to buy cheap goods. They aren’t in a mood to pay higher prices for American-made clothing when they can pay lower prices for foreign-made clothing.
Stewart stood in front of a former Dan River Mills building — which closed before NAFTA — and declared: “I want to see these mills working again.” That is simply preposterous. He might as well wish that buggy whip factories come back, too. He wants to turn back a clock that cannot be turned back. Why is he looking backward and not forward? Stewart wants to use Danville as an example of what’s wrong with the American economy, but he’s about 20 years too late. He ought to be using Danville as an example of what’s going right. Danville has its challenges, to be sure, but it’s also a city that is in the process of building a new economy and doing a pretty good job at it, too. Stewart — or any other politician for that matter — ought to be talking about how Danville actually stands out as a success story. Since he’s not, we will:
n Danville’s emphasis on a skilled workforce is also starting to pay off. It’s landed five new employers since 2014. “The exciting thing is these are paying well above our median income,” Tucker says. The city’s median income is about $32,000. “Many of these students are coming out of these workforce programs and starting at $40,000, $45,000, some even $55,000 with zero debt.” Danville’s problems are hardly fixed but the trendline is going in the right direction. There are now more jobs available in Danville than unemployed people seeking them. The city’s population exodus is also slowing.
n Danville is winning international recognition. Don’t just take our word or the word of local officials in Danville. Others are citing Danville as an example, too, and not just the Republican governor of Arkansas. Site Selection magazine has named Danville one of the nation’s Top 50 micro cities for economic activity.
A European economic development group, Foreign Direct Intelligence, last year named Danville one of the top 10 “micro cities” in the world.
You’d never know that from how Stewart describes Danville, probably because he doesn’t really know Danville. He also doesn’t seem to understand how the modern economy works. Danville does, though.