Category Archives: Economic development

Illuminating Rural Poverty in Virginia

Last week Augie Wallmeyer delivered a speech to the Virginia Historical Society on the “Extremes of Virginia.” If you haven’t read his book by the same title, listen to his speech. (Clicking on the image takes you to the Virginia Historical Society Facebook page, where the speech can be viewed.)

A Town that Refuses to Die

The past twenty years have been unkind to Halifax County. The Southside Virginia locality has seen wave after wave of plant and business closures — some caused by the restructuring of the tobacco industry, others from globalization and the offshoring of traditional manufacturing industries. The dislocations have been so traumatic that Bloomberg writer Craig Torres used Halifax and the town of South Boston as a mini case study of the downside of the nation’s free trade orthodoxy.

Reflecting a common view, the Heritage Foundation wrote in 2000 that free trade would create “prosperity that benefits every citizen.” While it still is possible to argue that free trade has benefited Americans overall, the impact has been uneven. And hundreds of small-town communities across America like Halifax County were the losers. No wonder, suggests Torres, that Halifax County swung toward avowed protectionist Donald Trump.

Torres spends much of the article describing how economists have begun questioning free trade dogma. He also recounts how the Halifax-South Boston community has undertaken the hard work of reinventing itself, a process that, he says, “might be working.” The jobs gap has closed. Halifax now has 5.1% unemployment, down from nearly 13% — only a tad higher than the nationwide rate of 4.3%. (Torres doesn’t discuss how many people are under-employed or dropped out of the workforce.)

The Southern Virginia Higher Education Center provides a variety of degrees and certifications in partnership with Virginia colleges and universities.

Look at the chart above, taken from the Bloomberg article. The post-NAFTA era of the mid-1990s was devastating to employment in Halifax County. While the U.S. economy as a whole prospered during the Internet boom, unemployment in Halifax shot up to 14%. The county managed to recover to national unemployment levels but got hammered again when the 2001 recession overlapped with China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. But the delta this time between Halifax and U.S. unemployment was somewhat smaller than it had been five years previously. Halifax got slammed in the 2008 recession as well, but the unemployment delta shrank yet again. Today the employment gap has almost disappeared.

Is Halifax County the story of a mill town that has successfully reinvented itself? Writes Bloomberg:

Some manufacturers are still around, from sports-car maker TMI AutoTech Inc. to Swiss industrial giant ABB Ltd. Both received incentives after expanding investment and adding jobs, the county industrial development authority said. The companies’ long-term plans for the region might hinge on whether the local workforce has the right skills; so South Boston and the county turned two former tobacco warehouses into a higher education center, offering college courses and vocational training, from nursing to welding to IT. Technicians trained there are getting hired at Microsoft Corp.’s data center in a neighboring county.

Torres explores what the Halifax example portends for the free trade debate. But the story has implications for a parallel discussion here in Virginia — can Virginia’s mill towns be saved? Or is money spent on economic-development efforts throwing money down the drain?

The evidence of Halifax County is admittedly anecdotal, but it is encouraging. The old economy is gone. It’s hard to imagine that there is anything left for globalization to destroy. Halifax has undergone an economic transition more wrenching than anything that inhabitants of Virginia’s major metro areas could imagine. But the community has adapted. In my humble appraisal, the agglomeration economics of the Knowledge Economy still favor the nation’s big metros and work against communities like Halifax over the long run. But it’s too soon to write off Virginia’s mill towns.

Here’s What Happens When You Mess Where You Shouldn’t Be a’Messin’

The City of Martinsville may be on the hook for an $800,000 loan extended to the Integrative Centers for Science and Medicine (ICSM) by the Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission. The tobacco commission gave ICSM the money to help start the College of Henricopolis School of Medicine in the economically beleaguered manufacturing town.

The tobacco commission agreed to back the for-profit medical college on the grounds that it would create jobs and add to the tax base. The city of Martinsville co-signed a performance agreement requiring that the medical college would hire 25% of its staff and generate $1.5 million in capital investment within 18 months. As of January, the 18-month mark, neither goal had been met, reports the Martinsville Bulletin.

Now the tobacco commission wants its money back, and Dr. Noel Boaz, president of the college and ICSM, its nonprofit arm, says the college doesn’t have it. The college spent the $800,000 but never achieved accreditation, and never received permanent certification from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. Boaz contends that the tobacco commission is wrong to demand its money back, and the Martinsville Bulletin has all the gory details.

But there is a simple lesson to be learned: Local governments have no business getting involved in business deals like this. Martinsville lacked the in-house expertise to evaluate the plans and promises of entrepreneurs like Boaz, and the city was in no position to take the financial risk. Locally backed economic development deals borne of desperation always seem to turn out badly.

The Surge in Prince William Data Storage

Data centers continue to be the biggest economic development game in Virginia. The sector is dominated by Loudoun County, which spotted the potential earlier than anyone else and moved quickly to gain competitive advantage. Now Loudoun’s next-door-neighbor, Prince William County, is coming on strong.

The data center industry has brought 31 projects to the county to date, injecting $6.2 billion in capital investment and 912 jobs into the local economy, reports Virginia Business magazine. Most of the tax revenue goes to the county’s bottom line. For every $1 in county services the industry requires, data centers yield about $4.30 in tax revenue to Prince William.

Prince William is close to Ashburn in Loudoun County, which is known as Data Center Alley because of its concentration of more than 10 million square feet of data centers that are either in operation or under development.

As of December, Northern Virginia was the leading North America data center market with more than 30% of the market share and a record of 113.0 megawatts absorption of the total 357.85 megawatts in the top U.S. markets, according to JLL’s 2017 Data Center Outlook.  That’s nearly double the total for the nearest competing market, Northern California, which had 59.1 megawatts.

In its latest report on data centers, JLL notes that Northern Virginia has all six major data center REITs (real estate investments trusts) and the top five cloud providers developing in the market.

The area has 12.6 million square feet of data center space, with 190 megawatts of new electric power under construction. JLL credits the area’s fiber-rich Internet infrastructure and affordable cost of electricity — an average of 5.2 cents per kilowatt hour for data centers — as competitive advantages.

Bacon’s bottom line: The data-center boom has a long way to go. Market analysts forecast continued growth as Big Data and the Internet of Things, among other factors, create demand for ever more data storage. Meanwhile, the shift from decentralized, in-house storage to Cloud storage will tend to concentrate the storage of data geographically in super-efficient facilities with access to abundant fiber-optic cable and a supply of cheap, preferably green, electricity. The main limit on the ability of Northern Virginia to accommodate more data centers may be the ability of Dominion Energy and the Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative to supply the region with power.

Dominion needs to upgrade its electric transmission capacity to serve Northern Virginia, but homeowners are not happy at the prospect of large towers and lines despoiling their views. As it happens, Prince William is ground zero for this conflict, where local residents are up in arms over Dominion’s proposed transmission line to serve a proposed Amazon Web Services data center in the Haymarket area. If Virginia wants to continue reaping the economic advantages of Northern Virginia’s data center boom, someone needs to figure out how to mediate these seemingly irreconcilable differences.

Should We Subsidize Rural Economies?

Last week I offered a point-by-point review of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam’s plan to revitalize rural Virginia. In rough summary, I concluded that the plan wouldn’t accomplish much, but on the other hand, it wouldn’t cost much either. The Northam proposals had considerably more merit than a lot of ideas — such as a $15-per-hour minimum wage — that he could have put forth.

Writing in the Richmond Times-Dispatch op-ed section, however, Bart Hinkle took issue with core assumptions of the Northam plan.

First, Hinkle noted that investing in job creation in Southwest Virginia is not necessarily the optimal solution for reducing unemployment. Perhaps people could better improve their circumstances by moving to urban areas that offered greater economic opportunity.

Of course, some people in Southwest Virginia might want to improve their economic circumstances and still stay put. But is it the state’s job to ensure that they can? And if the answer is yes, then what does that imply about, say, struggling economic sectors? Should the state help people stay in fading industries as well as fading regions? If not, why not?

Hinkle also questions the value of providing workers skill-specific training. He cites a Journal of Human Resources study that suggests technological and other changes often leave skill-trained workers behind, and that employers, rather than retrain them, often let them go and bring in new talent. The real need, the study suggests, is “for more general cognitive skills that give workers the ability to adapt to new circumstances and new jobs.”

On a more philosophical plane, Hinkle wonders why the job of providing specific workforce training has devolved to the state in the first place.

If companies need workers who are trained to perform specific tasks, then why don’t those companies do the training themselves? Why should the state — i.e. the taxpayers — shoulder the burden of doing it for them?

Labor, he suggests, is a production input just like raw materials. If Acme Semiconductors wanted to build a plant in Virginia, and it asked the state to ensure a steady supply of silicon, the state probably would tell Acme to pound sand. But if Acme says it wants workers trained to work in a clean room, Virginians feel compelled to help out.

Bacon’s bottom line: These are all good questions.

I am reminded of a Daily Signal article published last week about a federal-state-private job-training program set up in Kentucky coal country, practically next door to Virginia’s coal-mining counties, to teach people in 20 weeks of classroom training how to code. Under the banner of turning “coal country” into “code country,” the program paid interns $400 a week to learn how to write software code, and Interapt promised high-paying jobs to those who completed the course. But after a year and $20 million, the program has fallen far short of expectations. Only 17 people have found jobs in the tech sector.

The Kentucky program may or may not be typical of government-backed workforce training programs generally. Some programs deliver modestly positive results; others are scandalously, almost fraudulently bad. But even if they do help people find jobs, how long will skill sets from a 20-week training program stay relevant? How many graduates will have jobs requiring those skills three, four, or five years from now? Hinkle raises an important point: If companies require workers to possess certain skills, why don’t they train their own? Why has this obligation been fobbed off to government?

While acknowledging the value of Hinkle’s questions — I do lean libertarian, after all — I frame the issue differently. Rural Virginians do need help. If they can find local jobs through targeted training programs, great. If not, mastering new skills will make it easier, by making people more employable, for them to move to jobs in growing metropolitan areas, just as Hinkle thinks they should do.

If state government is going to subsidize anything under the banner of economic development, it should be education and training. Given that I favor continued state support for higher education mainly benefiting the upper middle-class, as noted here, how could I not endorse training expenditures to benefit those lower on the socio-economic ladder?

However, I am acutely cognizant of the dangers in turning job training over to untested government programs or public-private partnerships. Any program must be subjected to rigorous review to ensure that the benefits are commensurate with the costs. Resources are too scarce. We cannot afford to waste them.

Update: The obsession with rural economics is decades old. A couple of months ago, Garland Pollard penned a profile of Dr. Wilson Gee, a professor of Rural Economics and Rural Sociology at the University of Virginia beginning in 1923. His view, as Pollard puts it: “The United States is a rich country, even if we have nothing else but our land. Our farms and agriculture, worked properly and carefully, can provide riches for us, beyond measure, in health and well-being, as well as a decent, fair living. Compared to Europe, Africa and Asia, there is an abundance here, but we have have to work hard and make good use of it.”

Why Do Taxpayers Subsidize Public Colleges?


True, state support for higher education does constitute a subsidy for the upper middle-class. Think of it as a tool to recruit and retain human capital.

Why do taxpayers subsidize public colleges? Dimitrios Halikias and Richard V. Reeves with the Brookings Institution ask that question in a new paper. Four-year colleges, they noted, are dominated by children of the upper-middle class, who can afford the cost of attendance better than most. Why should states expend scarce resources to benefit the well-to-do?

One justification for the subsidies, the authors suggest, is that higher education provides public benefits in addition to the private returns that accrue to the students themselves. They identify two benefits in particular. Universities act as ladders for social mobility, allowing students from less affluent families to improve their lot in life. And they function as laboratories for research, expanding knowledge in ways that benefit the higher population.

A stronger case can be made for public support of institutions that provide one of those two benefit, say Halikias and Reeves. Institutions that do both, they call Leaders. Institutions that do neither, they term Laggards. Those that out-perform in providing mobility, they dub Ladders, and those that excel in research they refer to as Labs.

Drawing upon data from Mobility Report Cards, which rank colleges by their ability to attract low-income students and push them up the income ladder, and university research prowess based on the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Educationthey assigned each of the nation’s 342 selective, four-year, non mission-oriented universities to one of the four buckets. (They exclude Historically Black Colleges and Universities, liberal arts colleges, and military-oriented institutions. The University of Virginia, which I would classify as research institution, does not appear on the list. Neither does the College of William & Mary, which they presumably count as a liberal arts college.)

According to this methodology, Virginia has three Leaders — and not the ones who usually appear on lists of top universities. As can be seen in the table above, in order of social mobility, they are Old Dominion University, Virginia Commonwealth University and George Mason University. These institutions admit relatively large percentages of students from the lower-income quintile and relatively low percentages from the upper income quintile.

Particularly questionable from the Halikias-Reeves perspective are the low-mobility, low-research laggards: Christopher Newport University, Radford University, Longwood University and James Madison University. Indeed, LU and JMU have the distinction of ranking the lowest in the country by this measure.

Bacon’s bottom line: Regardless of what you might think of the authors’ methodology — it has its weaknesses, as I’m sure administrators of LU and JMU would be quick to point out — but it does raise a really important question. Why do states subsidize college tuition for all? If states must be in the game of subsidizing higher education, why not make all dispensations means tested?

I’m of two minds. As one who espouses libertarian principles, I see no justification to subsidize higher ed. Insofar as there is merit to the logic of the idea of social benefits to the subsidies, then one might make an argument for means-tested financial aid. On the other hand, I’m a taxpayer. I’ve paid large sums to the Commonwealth of Virginia over my lifetime, and a reduced-cost education first for me and then for my children is one of the few perks I’ve received in return (other than benefits like roads, state police and state parks available to anyone.) So, color me conflicted.

There is one important argument, however, that Halikias and Reeves neglected — at least in a Virginia context. Access to a superior system of higher education is a big draw to anyone considering moving to Virginia. If we want to attract human capital, there are few things more enticing than good K-12 schools and affordable, quality colleges. We give tax breaks and subsidies to businesses to lure them into the Old Dominion. Likewise, we subsidize higher education in order to recruit and retain the smartest and best educated employees… who, incidentally, pay the most in taxes. Unlike incentives for out-of-state businesses, Virginia citizens have been paying taxes all along — some for their entire lives.

Virginia often is criticized for spending less on higher-ed subsidies than the national average, and considerably less than our neighbor to the south, North Carolina. In an ideal world, no state would subsidize higher education, colleges would do a better job of controlling their costs and keeping tuition low, and private philanthropists would donate more money to scholarships. But we live in the world we live in, and eliminating state support for higher-ed would severely undercut Virginia’s economic competitiveness and its prospects for economic growth.

Northam’s Affordable, Not-So-Ambitious Plan for Reviving Rural Virginia

Ralph Northam, Democratic Party candidate for governor, grew up on the Eastern Shore, so it’s not surprising that he has given considerable thought to the challenges of economic development in Virginia’s small towns and rural communities. Earlier this week, he unveiled his plan for economic growth in rural Virginia.

If you’re looking for a “Marshall Plan” to reinvigorate rural Virginia, this is not it. The plan is not ambitious, and there may not be enough in it to get rural Virginians especially excited about Northam’s candidacy. But it has this virtue: Proposals don’t require spending vast sums of money, so they are at least feasible from a budgetary perspective. This is a plan that Northam, if elected, has a realistic chance of implementing.

Personally, I distrust “Marshall Plan” approaches to chronic social and economic challenges. Instead, in our fiscally constrained era, I’m a fan of low-cost, low-risk initiatives that will likely yield a positive return on investment. In that spirit, I’ll start by illuminated the most promising ideas in the Northam plan and work my way down the list.

Virginia’s Rapid Readiness Program. Northam proposes a “rapid readiness program” similar to successful workforce training programs in Georgia and Louisiana. “We could get this program started here in Virginia with a ten million dollar investment, with funding tied to business participants, number of projects delivered, and individuals successful trained,” states his plan.

Assuming that Northam is drawing upon the thinking of Virginia Economic Development Partnership CEO Stephen Moret, who set up the Louisiana program, the program would function as a extension of Virginia’s economic development effort by offering a workforce-training solution as an incentive for corporations to invest in Virginia. The program would differ from existing educational/training offerings by creating a team capable of providing customized training within a time frame required by corporations to get their operations up and running.

While the rapid readiness program would be applied across the state, rural areas arguably would benefit the most because such training applies most frequently to light manufacturing projects that typically locate in smaller communities.

I’m not sure $10 million is sufficient to fund this program properly. Regardless, there is a readily available pot of money — Northam and Moret no doubt would disagree with me about this — and that is the Commonwealth Opportunity Fund, which the state dips into to provide “incentives” for economic development projects. But as Moret himself said in a presentation to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia two days ago, workforce is one of the top three factors (and often the No. 1 factor) that corporations consider when deciding where to locate. Incentives are a secondary factor. Shifting money from incentives to workforce training looks like a no-brainer to me.

Expanding renewable energy. Expanding solar generation is viable rural economic development strategy. Solar farms may create few permanent jobs, but they do increase the tax base, and they often pay streams of royalties to landowners (depending on how particular deals are structured).

“In my home county of Accomack on the Eastern Shore,” says Northam, “the commonwealth’s largest solar farm is in the process of being built, which will ultimately power several data centers owned by Amazon.”

Northam says he is committed to working with Virginia’s electric utilities and the General Assembly to “remove barriers that stand in the way of developing and expanding clean energy efforts.” Note the phrase “remove barriers.” Northam is not asking for new subsidies or tax breaks. Solar doesn’t need subsidies; market forces increasingly favor solar. Rather, Northam wants to remove obstacles that inhibit businesses, entrepreneurs and homeowners from building rooftop solar and solar farms.

Utility-scale solar like the Amazon Web Services farms in Accomack need little help — Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power have ample incentive to deploy solar on a large scale. The barriers exist at two levels: local zoning codes and state regulatory policy. Local governments need to make their zoning codes more solar friendly. Meanwhile, state lawmakers need to craft “net metering” legislation that balances the interests of independent solar producers with those of electric utilities who maintain the electric power grid that everyone depends upon.

Broadband for all. Most people would accept the proposition that broadband Internet service is critical infrastructure for economic development today. The problem is that sparsely populated rural areas are not attractive markets to Virginia’s big broadband providers.

Northam points to a pilot project in Southside Virginia in which Virginia’s Tobacco Commission, Microsoft, and the Mid-Atlantic Broadband Company utilize unused portions of the television broadcast spectrum to push out high-quality wireless broadband. So far, more than 100 households have been connected, and the number could reach 1,000 by year’s end.

“Under this innovative public-private program, Virginia’s share of the cost is $500,000, leverage private investment for a total investment of $1 million,” states the Northam plan. “This commonwealth should look to replicate this successful program across rural Virginia.”

How so? He would pull together disparate broadband initiatives across the commonwealth under the direction of a cabinet official “who will be responsible for getting more people connected.” Northam also advocates legislation similar to that adopted in Minnesota that creates a clear set of metrics, including upload and download speeds, to evaluate broadband access. Whatever else you say about these proposals, it doesn’t sound like they will break the bank.

Expanding the University of Virginia-Wise. Northam proposes increasing the educational offerings of the University of Virginia-Wise to encompass high-need, high-growth disciplines such as cybersecurity, unmanned aerial systems, energy, and computer engineering and programs. Expanding UVa-Wise would cost about $15 million initially, Northam says, with a possibility of scaling up funding over time.

We have a unique opportunity … to transform UVA-Wise into an international destination for students and researchers. This will have a tremendous effect on the regional economy because when you can attract students and top talent from around the world for research and development, grants will follow. And with grants and applied research, business opportunities will soon follow. And structured correctly, these businesses will not only start up in Southwest Virginia, but they will remain and grow.

The idea of creating “innovation districts” around college campuses is a hot one right now, and anyone who has seen the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center can readily understand the potential for economic development near college campuses. But Tech is the top research university in the state. Whether its success can be replicated on even a modest scale by a tiny, largely unknown newcomer is questionable. Tech has invested hundreds of millions, maybe billions, of dollars, over decades building academic programs, hiring star faculty, recruiting graduate students, and assembling the administrative infrastructure it takes to win research contracts.

Competing for research dollars is tough. Well established institutions such as Old Dominion University and the College of William & Mary have seen their research programs falter in recent years. It is a stretch to suggest that a $15 million investment in Wise would spark the miraculous transformation that Northam describes.

Startup tax plan. To help attract and retain new business in rural and economically depressed regions of Virginia, Northam proposes a “zero BPOL and merchant’s capital tax for new startup and small businesses .. for the first two years. This will drive economic activity and startups to rural areas, and result in no loss in existing revenue to local governments.” Once local businesses take root, they will start paying taxes — a win-win.

It’s good to see a Democratic Party candidate advocating tax cuts! But the proposal lacks crucial detail. BPOL and merchant’s capital taxes are local taxes. How does Northam propose eliminating those taxes for two years? Will the state just command localities to change their ordinances? Will the state reimburse them for lost revenue? Does he have the remotest idea of what the initiative would cost? Finally, while the BPOL and merchant’s capital taxes are near the top of the list of things that small businesses in Virginia hate, is there any body of evidence suggesting that a mere two-year reprieve will stimulate more startups?

There’s more to Northam’s plan, but the other proposals, which address workforce development, are statewide in nature and don’t address peculiarly rural issues. So, I won’t dwell on them here.

Perhaps the best thing that can be said about this plan is that Northam isn’t making extravagant promises that he can’t keep. These narrow-bore proposals won’t exactly spark a rural Renaissance, but for the most part, they seem politically and fiscally feasible.

Building a Better Business Climate

Governor Terry McAuliffe wasn’t the only one to welcome Virginia’s No. 7 status in CNBC’s 2017 “Best States for Business” ranking.

“Good news? Of course it is!” wrote Chris Saxman,  executive director of Virginia FREE in an email blast yesterday. “Better is better and moving back into the Top Ten is important for a number of reasons especially since Virginia’s rankings have fallen recently. “

But there was cause for concern, Saxman warned. Virginia’s ranking for the “cost of doing business” category was a crummy 35th.

“Virginia FREE has pointed this glaring problem out in previous commentaries. We also have urged legislators and candidates talk with local business owners in their districts to discover what drives business costs and how state government can mitigate those costs,” he wrote.

Legislators need to work with policy experts in chambers of commerce “to see all sides of the policy changes that are necessary,” Saxman urged. Tackling undue regulatory burdens would help address the poor Cost of Doing Business, he suggested. “However,” he added, “Virginia should get these reforms done correctly and that takes time.”

That’s a key point I made in my previous post about the best-state-for-business ranking. Improving the business climate takes time. It takes dozens of incremental, often obscure reforms. And it takes more than the superman exertions of a single governor. Ideally, if the reforms are to last, they should arise from bipartisan consensus. In an era of polarized politics, consensus may be harder to achieve than ever — but it’s more necessary than ever.

Taking a Peek Behind the CNBC Best-State-for-Business Ranking

Click for more legible image.

Governor Terry McAuliffe said yesterday that he was “thrilled” Virginia had moved up six spots to 7th place in CNBC’s Best States for Business 2017 rankings — and when McAuliffe says he’s thrilled, you can take that to the bank. Whatever else you think about the job he’s done as governor, there is no denying his ardor for his job as Virginia’s chief economic-development salesman and his enthusiasm for every Virginia accomplishment large and small.

In a prepared statement issued yesterday, McAuliffe put his spin on what the news said about his leadership as governor.

“The effects from federal sequestration in 2013 did substantial damage to our economy. When I took office, we came in with a clear and simple plan to diversify our industries and make Virginia less dependent on the whims of Washington. Thanks to significant reforms and historic investments in our education system, innovative workforce development strategies and the record-breaking recruitment of new business capital and jobs, we are mitigating the damage of federal dysfunction and building an economy that works better for everyone.”

McAuliffe isn’t doing anything that any other governor wouldn’t do — taking credit for good news — but the public should take assertions like this with a grain of salt. Dramatic rises and falls in CNBC’s rankings could reflect changes in the economy and CNBC’s scoring methodology as much as anything that McAuliffe (or his peers and predecessors) did.

Take a look at the chart above, which breaks down CNBC’s overall score by 10 categories. Virginia performs worse in five categories since McAuliffe took office in 2014: infrastructure, cost of business, technology & innovation, education and business friendliness. Despite what McAuliffe terms the state’s “historic investment in education,” Virginia’s education rank is lower than when he became governor.

McAuliffe can claim credit for improvements in access to capital, cost of living, and quality of life if he wants to, but it strains credulity to suggest that the incremental policy changes he made as governor had much effect on them. 

Virginia’s gain as a best state to do business – from No. 8 to No. 7 — over McAuliffe’s tenure can be attributed mainly to the Old Dominion’s higher rankings for “workforce” and “economy.”

CNBC gives “workforce” the heaviest weight in its ranking — 425 out of 2,200 points, reflecting the increasing emphasis that businesses give the attribute. Fortunately for us, that is Virginia’ top-performing category. The Old Dominion ranked No. 2 in the country this year. As a bonus, the weight that CNBC assigned the category increased from 400 points last year. To some degree, Virginia owes its better best-place-for-business rank to changes in the way the network calculates its scores.

Now, it’s also true that Virginia’s workforce rating improved as well. Here’s what goes into CNBC’s scoring for that category (my emphasis):

We rate states based on the education level of their workforce, the numbers of available employees and the states’ demonstrated abilities to retain college-educated workers. We consider each state’s concentration of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) workers, increasingly in demand by business. We measure workforce productivity based on each state’s economic output per job. We look at the relative success of each state’s worker training programs in placing their participants in jobs. We also consider union membership and the states’ right-to-work laws.

Virginia scores well in the “workforce” ranking in large part because of the state’s ability — or perhaps I should say Northern Virginia’s ability — to recruit educated workers from outside the state. It is true that Virginia’s higher-ed system is producing more STEM degrees than ever before, but producing STEM degrees is no guarantee of keeping STEM degrees in the state — just ask the state of Michigan. It is also true that McAuliffe signed the Virginia GO workforce legislation, but that program has not been in effect long enough to have a material influence on workforce training programs.

Clearly, Virginia is doing something right when it comes to building a 21st-century workforce, but it’s far from clear that recent actions emanating from Richmond can explain the short-term fluctuations in the CNBC scoring for the workforce indicator.

Virginia’s “economy” rank has improved as well in the past year, accounting for 300 points in CNBC’s 2,200-point ranking. McAuliffe has done an effective job as Virginia super-salesman. And he has worked to diversify Virginia’s economy from its reliance upon federal defense spending, touting everything from drones and cyber-security to Virginia’s ports and renewable energy. But have his actions been so extraordinary as to move the needle on Virginia’s “economy” score?

Here’s how CNBC computes its score for that category:

We look at economic growth, job creation, consumer spending, and the health of the residential real estate market. We measure each state’s fiscal health by looking at its credit ratings and outlook, as well as its overall budget picture. Because of their own economic impact as well as the ripple effect, we consider the number of major corporations headquartered in each state.

Consumer spending and the residential real estate market are not sectors that state policy affects. Overall economic growth is influenced mainly by (a) the level of federal spending and (b) Virginia’s mix of fast- and slow-growth industries. As for the state’s fiscal health, well, the governor shares responsibility for that with the General Assembly.

Bacon’s bottom line: My purpose is not to discredit McAuliffe’s performance as economic-development chieftain, which has been pretty good overall, but to dampen expectations that this governor (or any governor) has much impact on year-to-year changes in Virginia’s business climate. Burnishing a state’s business climate takes a long-term commitment from governors, legislators, business and civic leaders, and local government officials. I’ll have more to say about that in my next post.

Two More Signs that City of Richmond Is Kicking Donkey

Kicking donkey

The City of Richmond is on a tear. Not only is it seeing more real estate investment than it has it decades, the city is laying the groundwork for future growth and re-development. Its competitive advantage over neighboring suburban counties seems to get stronger with every passing day.

Word has leaked to local media of a privately led plans to replace the aging Richmond Coliseum as part of a larger initiative to revitalize a critical piece of the downtown district. A small working group led by Dominion Energy CEO Thomas Farrell and including Virginia Commonwealth University and the Altria Group has confirmed its desire to replace the decrepit Coliseum civic arena, which suffers from major deficiencies and drains $1.6 million a year from city coffers. Plans include a hotel to serve visitors to the nearby convention center, and encompass the historical Blues Armory building.

The working group, which is so preliminary that it does not yet have a name, is not ready to release details on the scope of the project, its cost or its financing.

Normally, when I hear of civic leaders talking up a big downtown redevelopment project, I immediately reach for my wallet. Most schemes call upon city governments to make major financial contributions, which are justified on the basis of fantasy projections of jobs, tax revenue, and spin-off investment. All too often these projects experience cost overruns, or projections fall short. (Just ask the City of Norfolk, which had its “donkey” handed to it for cost overruns of the Tide light rail project, and more recently, the Virginian-Pilot reports today, experienced a $16 million cost overrun on the $105 million Main hotel and conference center project downtown.)

But the larger point is that downtown Richmond excites the interest of the city’s major institutions and business leaders. There is something to work with. The Biotechnology Research Park has transformed the area to the north and east of the Coliseum. The neighboring Jackson Ward district to the west has been gentrified. Broad Street to the south is roaring back.  Developers are converting warehouses and obsolete office buildings into apartments and condos downtown. The Coliseum’s location is prime real estate, and it is under-utilized. Who knows, miracles do happen. Perhaps it will prove possible to re-develop the land around the Coliseum without massive subsidies.

A significant side benefit of a re-development project would be to improve connectivity downtown. As the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports: “The plan envisions a transformation of the traditional street grid, now partly sunken below grade in places and blocked entirely in others” to better connect the VCU health system, the government center around City Hall, and the biotechnology research park.

An impetus behind the initiative was the city’s commitment to build Bus Rapid Transit along Broad Street. The draft Pulse Corridor Plan calls for exploiting the “opportunity area” in the vicinity of the Coliseum. As it happens, the Pulse also will serve the Scotts Addition district, which the city is in the process of rezoning to maximize re-development opportunities.

The Pulse is expected to commence operations in October. One of its ten stops serves Scotts Addition, a light manufacturing district that has been transformed by the conversion of brick industrial buildings into apartments, condos, offices, restaurants, and breweries. City planners call for two new zoning districts: transit-oriented development (TOD) along the Broad Street corridor, and mixed-use for the rest of Scotts Addition.

The city’s planning staff calls the draft TOD-1 district “unabashedly urban,” reports the McGuireWoods land use team. The recommended ordinance is “intended to encourage redevelopment and place-making, including adaptive reuse of underutilized buildings, to create a high-quality urban realm.” Zoning would require walkable streetscapes and allow buildings of up to 12 stories in height. Most buildings would have a maximum setback of 10 feet. Parking requirements would be lifted for all uses other than hotels and large, multifamily residential buildings.

Beyond the Broad Street corridor, Scott’s Addition would be rezoned from light industrial to a mixed-use business district. Zoning would encourage “street-oriented commercial” corridors, requiring street-front retail as part of any residential use, and prohibiting car-oriented uses like gas stations and parking decks. Amendments would permit “maker” light manufacturing uses of under 10,000 square feet, which, if approved, could extend the ongoing boom in breweries, cideries and distilleries.

If both rezonings are approved, says the McGuireWoods land use team, “there may be significant opportunities for RVA’s commercial real estate community to actualize the city’s vision for denser, more urban development in this area.” 

The Pulse extends into Henrico County, terminating near the Willow Lawn mall. If county officials are planning to take advantage of the BRT service, there is no sign of it in my Google results. The only rezoning activity near Willow Lawn took place last year: approving a development and lighting plan for a Chick-fil-A.

One positive sign, however, is that Henrico has hired Clarion Associates to lead a comprehensive update of its zoning and subdivision ordinances — the first such effort in six decades. The revisions are expected to take two years, however, so even if the county commits to a vision of selective urbanization, the city of Richmond likely will continue to whup donkey.