Economic developers, educators, business owners and others gathered on May 10 at The University of Virginia’s College at Wise to look at ways to improve Southwest Virginia’s economy by working together and sharing ideas to boost the region and its people.
UVa-Wise Chancellor Donna P. Henry welcomed those attending the second SWVA Economic Forum to the David J. Prior Convocation Center. Stephen Moret, president and chief executive officer of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, Steve Smith, president and chief executive officer of K-VA-T Food Stores, Inc. and a member of the Go Virginia Board, and state lawmakers Delegate Terry Kilgore and Delegate Israel O’Quinn were among the speakers at the event.
“As I look throughout the audience, I see friends and colleagues who care deeply about the future of our region,” Henry said. “Many of us are partnering in ways we’ve never partnered before and engaging in creative, innovative and new initiatives that we never imagined even five years ago when I arrived in Wise.”
Henry listed many projects that had been accomplished since the first forum was held at the College a year ago. Several industrial announcements for new facilities and expansions of existing ones were on the list. DP Facilities and Frontier Secure/Sykes in Wise, TeleTech in Scott County, announcement of Branch Botanicals in Wythe County, expansion of Universal Companies in Washington County, expansion of Mayville Engineering Company and Woodgrain Millwork in Smyth County were mentioned.
“Additionally, investments by the Virginia Tobacco Commission and the Appalachian Regional Commission through POWER funding have enabled us to launch new, disruptive programs,” Henry added. “I mean ‘disruptive’ in the most positive sense of the word. I mean thinking outside of the box and rethinking the way we do things to achieve innovation and efficiency.”
The chancellor listed Mountain Empire Community College’s Unmanned Aerial Systems training program, among the first in Virginia as a program that distinguishes our region as a leader in this emerging industry.
“Leveraging the fiber optic network and power grid, the community colleges and UVa-Wise partnered to successfully receive ARC POWER and VA Tobacco Commission grants to build a cybersecurity workforce in Southwest Virginia,” Henry said.
Henry noted that many say more initiatives are underway than many have seen in the past. Initiatives in cyber, unmanned systems, solar, agriculture, trail development, river destinations, health & wellness coalitions, entrepreneurship and much more are occurring all across the region, she explained, adding that the projects show that Southwest Virginia is attractive for new business and industry.
“All of these work together to create a diversified and vibrant economy in Southwest Virginia,” she said. “With that said, it seems we just can’t work fast enough. We see our friends and neighbors struggling–many of them leaving or considering leaving the place they’ve called home all of their lives. There is a sense of urgency for most of us here today and a strong desire to reimagine our future. There is a strong sense of place in Southwest Virginia, and it is through cultivating a spirit of partnership that we will realize a healthy and sustainable future for our region. Our struggle is not with each other but with the external pressures facing our region. There are never enough resources… time, money or people to make things happen when we go it alone. If we collaborate and partner in creative and productive ways, we will transform the region’s economy.”
Henry said the College is committed to the region and will do all it can to partner with others in the region to move Southwest Virginia forward.
“I urge colleagues across all sectors, whether from education, industry, economic development, government or civic organizations, to be intentional about seeking partnerships, leverage assets with each other and to refrain from territorial thinking and work together,” Henry said. “Southwest Virginia is recognized across the Commonwealth for our regional collaboration. We’ve been a model for others in this regard. Our collaboration has gotten us through tough times before and it will see us through the challenges we face today. “
Moret presented statistics that indicate the region will lose about 1,000 people a year for the next 10 years, and must add 250 new jobs each year to maintain the status quo. Other parts of rural America are experiencing the same situation, but the region is doubly challenged by the downward trend of coal markets.
However, Moret touted the computer science and software engineering program at UVa-Wise and said the programs, along with a boost to workforce development training, a look at changing the state’s tax structure, better incentives for companies looking at Virginia and developing mixed-use developments that appeal to younger workers are ways to help Southwest Virginia’s future.
Smith briefed those attending on the Go Virginia Board, a group created to encourage private business growth and job growth. He said the nine Go Virginia regions will work to find the needs of each area, consider which projects to recommend to the Go Virginia Board for funding, and said funding would be based on the particular needs of those projects.