Tag Archives: Rural development

Fifteen Nucleii for the Rebirth of Southwest Virginia

Stephen Moret, CEO of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership. Photo credit: Roanoke Times

Southwest Virginia is on track to lose 1,000 residents each year for the next decade, Stephen Moret, chief of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, told attendees of the Southwest Virginia Economic Forum in Wise, yesterday. The region needs to add 250 new jobs per year over and above the new jobs already coming just to stay stable.

Achieving a 1% annual growth rate will require adding three times the number of new jobs each year, he said, as reported by the Roanoke Times. “Yes, it’s a big challenge. Yes we’re up against a lot nationally, but this is something we can achieve if we’re focused enough, aggressive enough, committed enough.”

Moret proposed a six-point plan to jump-start the region’s economy. As summarized by the Times, he recommends:

  • Expanding computer science programs at higher education institutions.
  • Increasing workforce development training to match business needs.
  • Altering Virginia’s tax structure to reduce taxes on technologically advanced manufacturing businesses.
  • Offering higher incentives to companies willing to relocate or expand in rural Virginia.
  • Spending money to market rural Virginia — something the commonwealth doesn’t currently do.
  • Creating mixed-use developments attractive to young professionals as a way to improve quality of life factors.

You can download a copy of Moret’s presentation from Google Docs. The presentation begins his aspirational goals for Virginia and VEDP, then places Virginia’s rural development challenges in a national context, and ends with a few ideas to advance economic development in the coalfield region (i.e., far Southwest Va.)”

Bacon’s bottom line: These ideas all sound reasonable… but five of the six require more money, either directly through higher expenditures or indirectly through tax breaks. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of extra cash floating around, either at the state level or the local or regional levels. Perhaps the Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, which has an annual budget of about $30 million, is in a position to fund the workforce training initiatives, incentives and marketing programs. Perhaps the higher-ed sector can reallocate funds to expand computer science programs. But it won’t be easy finding the resources for new initiatives.

The most original idea — indeed it’s such a departure from the usual thinking about rural economic development that it slaps you like a mackerel across the face — is the recommendation to create mixed-use development attractive to young professionals. This notion has much to commend it, not the least of which it doesn’t require subsidies or tax breaks, and is fully within the power of local governments to implement, subject to market constraints.

I would like to expand upon the idea. By my count there are four cities — Bristol, Radford, Galax and Norton — in Southwest Virginia and more than 40 incorporated towns. The towns range in size from Blacksburg (population 44,200) to Clinchport (population 67) in Scott County — both the largest and the smallest in the Commonwealth. Many of these cities and towns have walkable Main Streets or downtown districts capable of supporting mixed use development.

Blacksburg is a unique case. Its vibrant downtown district is an extension of Virginia Tech, an economic powerhouse unmatched elsewhere in the region, and its success cannot be replicated. But I have frequently referred to the example of Abingdon, which I believe can serve as a template for communities not endowed with a major research university. Abingdon has built an attractive, walkable downtown around the nucleus of the historical Barter Theater, the Martha Washington Inn and a stock of historic brick buildings. The town has become not only a place where people want to visit but where people want to live.

Counties, cities and towns need to fundamentally shift their thinking — as embedded in zoning codes, comprehensive plans, and capital spending plans — from subsidizing rural sprawl to creating walkable urban nucleii. Capital spending plans should invest in expanding the grid street networks from their Main Street/downtown cores. And if they have any cash to spare, municipalities should invest in sidewalks and streetscapes (and, if demand exists, cycling lanes) with the goal of making streets more hospitable to pedestrians. But they need to do it right. Place making is a complex discipline, and investments should be guided by the principles of Smart Growth or New Urbanism. Finally, cities and towns need to get comfortable with the idea that mixing offices, retail and residential is a good thing — it’s what more and more people want.

The big challenge is overcoming stagnant or shrinking populations. It’s hard to justify investing in new buildings in walkable, mixed-use districts if there is little demand. That’s where a regional marketing plan could prove invaluable. But instead of spending marketing dollars on trying to attract light industry (as I presume Moret intends), or even young people, who will be a hard sell without abundant jobs, I would suggest spending it on attracting retirees looking for inexpensive places to spend their leisure years. Such a campaign should not aim at retirees generally but (a) emigres who may have sentimental or family attachments to the region, or (b) retirees seeking to live an active, outdoors lifestyle.

By my hasty, back-of-the-envelope calculation, Southwest Virginia has at least 15 communities of sufficient scale to create small, intimate, walkable places where people with significant disposable income might be willing to live. (My list is hardly definitive, and likely would need to be revised, but the guiding idea is sound.) These are the potential nucleii for rebirth. These are where the tobacco commission should be investing in broadband, where the state and counties should be funneling infrastructure dollars, and where institutional assets such as schools, colleges, museums, libraries, community centers should cluster.

Southwest Virginia needs to reinvent itself for the 21st century economy. Light industry, data centers, solar farms, call centers and back-office operations are all part of the equation. But creating places where people actually want to live is indispensable as well. Kudos to Moret for raising the issue.

Nobody Cares about You, Southwest Virginia, and Maybe That’s a Good Thing

Downtown Abingdon, one of Virginia’s great walkable places.

The Roanoke Times tells a hard truth to the readers of Southwest Virginia: “Nobody cares about you.”

Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe, says the Sunday editorial, has done nothing to help the counties of the far Southwest whose finances were devastated by the collapse of the coal industry. The Democratic Party in Virginia has “evolved into almost strictly a suburban-urban party that has no natural interest in anything west of the Blue Ridge.”

And the Republicans? After promising to help the coal industry, President Trump has proposed slashing funding for energy research and zeroing out a program that pays to convert old mines into industrial sites. Concludes the editorial:

What’s the takeaway from all this? We’re on our own. We cannot count on either Richmond or Washington to help us. Maybe from time to time one of them will come through with some unexpected grant to help with some piece of infrastructure and we should be grateful. On a day-to-day basis, though, it’s clear that both the state and federal governments have come to a bipartisan consensus: Southwest Virginia doesn’t matter to them.

What is the down-on-its-luck region supposed to do? Businesses need to get more engaged, says the Times. Local government needs to focus more on economic development. Voters need to be more demanding.

The Times is right. Other regions are indifferent to the fate of Southwest Virginia. They have their own problems and their own funding issues. Other regions insist that they’re getting a raw deal from the state. (Talk to a Northern Virginian some time. NoVa may be rich, but its citizens feel short-changed and aggrieved.) And every region pursues its own self interest. The bigger piggies muscle closer to the trough, leaving the weaker piggies behind. It’s Darwinism in a political setting.

Southwest Virginians would be well advised not to pin their hopes on the largess of others. What, then, can they do?

They could start by acknowledging some harsh realities. First, coal is never coming back. Natural gas, wind power and solar power are far cleaner and far cheaper. Economics will dictate than any new electric-generating capacity in the United States over the next decade will be either gas or renewable. Existing coal plants will serve out their economically useful lives, and then they will be phased out.

Second, manufacturing might rebound, but it will never provide the large-scale employment it did a generation ago. Some manufacturing operations may repatriate from overseas back to the U.S., and corporations will continue to invest in plant expansions. But robotics, artificial intelligence and other forms of automation mean that manufacturing processes will create require fewer and fewer jobs as time goes on. The return on investment on traditional economic development strategies — recruiting manufacturing investment — will continue to decline.

Third, the agglomeration economies of the Knowledge Economy will continue to favor metropolitan areas with large, diverse pools of skilled, educated labor over small, semi-skilled labor pools of rural communities. The Roanoke-Blacksburg area, with its access to Virginia Tech, its faculty, graduates and entrepreneurial spin-offs, conceivably can achieve economic escape velocity. But no other city or town in the region has that potential. Meanwhile, young people who succeed in obtaining a college education will continue to emigrate from the region — just like they’re doing in every other rural community across the country.

Making the challenge even more difficult, Southwest Virginia lacks an advantage possessed by other rural areas in Virginia such as the Shenandoah Valley, the northern Piedmont, and the Chesapeake Bay tidewater — proximity to large, affluent metropolitan areas. A location within easy driving distance of big metros will support an economy of resorts, vacation homes, retiree communities and weekend-getaway amenities for city dwellers.

What options does that leave Southwest Virginia? Not many. But the region is not destitute of assets. The Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission still has millions of dollars to dispense. The region just has to take care not to squander its limited resources on chimera like new Interstate highways, inter-city rail service, manufacturing subsidies, our outright follies such as government-supported golf courses, convention centers and other long-shot efforts to stimulate development.

I’ve written before about the Aspen model of economic development, built on active outdoor recreation — not just skiing but hiking, rafting, rock-climbing, mountain biking, kayaking, fishing, all-terrain riding, and so on — as well as a fabulous, walkable downtown. The walkable downtown is a critical element of Aspen’s success, and there is no reason that Virginia can’t replicate the formula in many of its small towns.

Call it the Abingdon model instead of the Aspen model. The town of Abingdon in Washington County is one of the most charming places in Virginia, and it is set in an area of great natural beauty. It has become destination that people are willing to travel hours to visit. Abingdon is proof that the strategy can work.

Wise County is another innovative community, exploiting its investment in broadband to recruit data centers. Data centers don’t support many jobs, but they do pay taxes that broaden the tax base. The county also is exploring opportunities to supply green energy to the data centers. Regional authorities should map the electric transmission grid, enact solar-friendly zoning ordinances and comprehensive plans, and encourage solar developers to consolidate properties capable of hosting utility-scale solar farms.

America is a big place, and while most rural areas (outside the fracking hotspots) are hurting. But some communities are faring better than others. Some are doing innovative things. Southwest Virginia can learn from the example of others. Perhaps it’s not a bad thing that no one else cares about the region. In the long run, dependence and handouts accomplish less than resilience and self reliance.

Rappahannock Water Quality Endangered by Fracking?

Rappahannock River

Rappahannock River. Image credit: American Rivers.

American Rivers has listed the Rappahannock River as the fifth “most endangered” river in the United States. The environmental group claims the river is threatened by industry interest in hydraulic fracturing (fracking) operations in the Taylorsville Basin lying thousands of feet beneath the river. The quality of drinking water of three million people in eastern Virginia are at stake.

The Rappahannock joins company with the Lower Colorado River (the most endangered), which is threatened by excess water consumption; California’s Bear River, which is imperiled by a new dam; the South Fork Skykomish River in Washington, which is jeopardized by a new hydropower project; and six other rivers. These rivers are not necessarily the most polluted. Rather, American Rivers highlights in its “America’s Most Endangered Rivers 2017” report ten rivers whose fates will be affected by the political process in the upcoming year.

The watershed of the Rappahannock, the longest free-flowing river in Virginia, encompasses all or parts of 18 counties, the report notes, and supports thriving agricultural and seafood sectors as well as recreational activity.

American Rivers is concerned that 85,000 acres in five counties along the tidal Rappahannock are leased for oil and gas exploration. Only one of the five counties has enacted a land use ordinance to protect against the impact of fracking. Last year, Governor Terry McAuliffe approved new regulations that would require baseline water testing and monitoring along with the disclosure of any chemicals used in the fracking process. The oil and gas lobby introduced legislation to weaken the regs in the 2017 General Assembly session, but the effort was beaten back. Says American Rivers:

It is clear that the threats that industrial gas development and fracking pose to the rural and agricultural communities along the Rappahannock River are not going away. The first line of defense lies with local government, which has the power to establish local protections to protect the drinking water for millions of citizens.

Last  year Prince George County amended its zoning ordinance to require hefty setbacks for gas wells, effectively making 91% of the county unavailable for drilling. But Westmoreland, Essex, Caroline, and King and Queen Counties have yet to act.

Here’s the source of concern: Gas companies must drill through the Potomac Aquifer to reach the gas in the Taylorsville Basin, which is reported to contain more than 1 trillion cubic feet of gas, equivalent to two-and-a-half times the volume of gas consumed in Virginia in a year. Fracking injects sand and chemicals under high pressure to fracture the rock sufficiently for oil and gas to flow through it. Although oil and gas companies seal off drill holes where they pass through aquifers, environmentalists claim that potentially toxic chemicals still can leak into the Potomac Aquifer and, from there, eventually into the Rappahannock River.

Bacon’s bottom line: Environmental groups are adamant that fracking represents a danger to the aquifer and water supply. The oil and gas industry is equally insistent that fracking poses minimal risk. Each side cites seemingly authoritative studies. Who knows?

The Taylorsville Basin contains maybe one-fortieth the volume of gas contained in the famed Marcellus Basin, which has transformed energy economics in the United States, but it’s nothing to sneeze at. The gas has an economic value of $2 billion to $4 billion, maybe more, depending upon the current price of natural gas. That represents a lot of economic activity for five economically depressed rural counties.

Admittedly, a billion dollars or so in local payroll and royalties won’t be much consolation if fracking ruins the water supply. But more than 8,000 wells have been hydraulically fractured in Southwest Virginia with no documented instances of surface or groundwater contamination, according to state geologist David Spears.

The McAuliffe administration made a prudent decision, it seems to me, to establish a baseline of data on Potomac Aquifer water quality and to require gas companies to disclose the chemicals they use in fracking. If chemicals used in fracking are not found in the aquifer but suddenly appear after drilling begins, it is not unreasonable to conclude that fracking created the problem. Conversely, if none of the chemicals show up in the aquifer, no harm is likely being done.

Regardless, the American Rivers report signals that the Taylorsville Basin is on the radar screen of national environmental groups. I expect they will pour considerable resources into fighting development of the basin. Linking that fight to the conservation of the treasured Rappahannock River is shrewd public relations.

How National Monopolies Drain Rural Economies

Dilapidated buildings along Main Street in Pamplin City, Prince Edward County. Photo credit: OnlyInYourState.com.

Virginia’s rural communities suffer from huge disadvantages when competing for job-creating corporate investment. Low density makes it expensive to install high-bandwidth Internet service. The small size of rural communities makes it difficult to support the amenities that skilled, educated workers are looking for. And, most important, corporations prefer locating in metropolitan areas with “deep” labor markets where they can tap employees with specialized skills.

Perhaps we can add one more disadvantage to the list: a national economy increasingly dominated by monopolies and cartels. So suggests Lillian Salerno, a former Texan who served as deputy under secretary for rural development in the Obama administration.

“For decades,” she writes in a Washington Post op-ed, rural America has been punished by bad policy that places too much power in the hands of distant financiers and middlemen through the formation of monopolies, which undermines small, local businesses and drains communities of resources.”

New business formation has plunged since the Great Recession, and nowhere more dramatically than in counties with fewer than 100,000 people. Why? Because, Salerno says, the federal government stopped enforcing monopoly laws.

This slow-rolling wave of corporate mergers has left almost all major markets — airlines, telecommunications, health care, retail, milk, seeds for growing crops, hardware, even cowboy boots — dominated by a cluster of mega-corporations, cloaked behind a plethora of brand names. These behemoths now hold unprecedented power over thousands of once-thriving community economies.

Corporate concentration has hit farmers, ranchers and agricultural workers especially hard, she writes. Many markets are monopolized by a single company that dictates the terms of business to suppliers. The seed industry has dwindled from 600 independent companies two decades ago to six today. Similar levels of concentration exist in the pork, chicken and dairy industries.

I don’t know if Salerno is right or not — I would like to see more specifics — but her argument is worth close examination. If her theory holds up, it is discouraging indeed for rural economies, for a decades-long drift toward a cartel-dominated economy is not easily reversed. If it’s any consolation, monopolies are not good for most metropolitan economies either.

Will NIMBYs Thwart SolUnesco Solar Plan?

SolUnesco CEO Francis Hodsoll addresses the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors

SolUnesco CEO Francis Hodsoll addresses the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors. Photo credit: Charlottesville Tomorrow.

Not all barriers to solar energy emanate from Richmond. Take Albemarle County, for example. The county zoning code outlaws solar farms, we learn from Charlottesville Tomorrow.

“The current zoning ordinance allows for the transmission and distribution of energy, but not the generation of energy,” said county planner Margaret Maliszewski at Wednesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting.

The issue arose because Reston-based SolUnesco wants to submit an application to develop an 11-megawatt photovoltaic solar energy generation system in southern Albemarle. “Our project is for the wholesale supply of energy that goes onto a wholesale network of transmission and distribution lines and that allows people to buy energy from our project or for a utility to buy energy directly from us,” said SolUnesco CEO Francis Hodsoll.

Albemarle Supervisors directed the planning department to study the issue. But, while the Charlottesville-Albemarle area may be home to many solar-loving greenies, don’t take it for granted that county planners will roll over for SolUnesco.

“As a member of a rural neighborhood, the first thing that comes to mind is protection of the rural areas,” said Phillip Fassieux at the board meeting. “We all love solar power, but at what cost? … “How will residents of Albemarle benefit specifically from turning over part of our rural county to its use? Will we see reductions in electricity rates?”

Everyone loves solar in theory, but opposition frequently surfaces locally when someone proposes building a solar farm near them. Others object to the idea of vast solar farms displacing agricultural uses of the land. SolUnesco’s proposed 11-megawatt solar farm, big enough to supply demand for about 2,000 households, would require between 70 and 80 acres of land. Typically, solar farms include vegetated buffer zones to screen the solar panels from view.

(Another potential objection to solar is that, given the state formula for distributing school aid, a big capital investment in solar could actually hurt a county financially. I’ll deal with that issue in a separate post.)

Bacon’s bottom line: Call me a Neanderthal, but I support private property rights. I see no justification for Albemarle County — or any county — to impose zoning restrictions prohibiting solar farms. If a property owner decides that installing solar panels represents a use of land preferable to agriculture or timber, that should be his decision to make. Counties have no business intervening unless the land use creates a nuisance to neighbors. Unlike wind turbines, solar panels create no noise, are easily hidden from view, and don’t harm wildlife. NIMBYs need to get a life.

And one more thing… The SolUnesco pitch to landowners asserts that its 25-year leases will generate above-market returns for landowners with an inflation escalator. The company assumes all costs and risks associated with developing the project — the landowner just collects checks for 25 years.

Rural Virginia is hurting. It has few resources of value in the knowledge economy. One thing it does have is land. Solar energy represents a rare opportunity for Virginia’s rural economy. There are many complex issues surrounding the integration of solar into the electric grid that need to be resolved before we see widespread deployment, but land use should not be one of them.