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.

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2 responses to “A Town that Refuses to Die

  1. towns are different from rural …. they can and are places where economic activity is more likely and possible because they generally have higher levels of infrastructure – like water, sewer, internet, grid streets, more robust cellular and land lines and even electricity with substations and more redundant supply. They often also often county seat type services… post offices, state offices for social services, public safety, medical services, hospitals, clinics, doctor offices, schools, higher ed, community colleges, etc.

    Even though many are decimated by the loss of manufacturing .. textiles, lumber, they still anchor the rural areas around them and still will “hang on” albeit maybe not as big as their heydays… but on the other hand -still having the basic infrastructure accouterments to attract some kinds of 21st century economic activity.

    The vaunted knowledge economy is also found in places like Redmond, Washington, Bend Oregon , etc…

    “Facebook, IBM, and 5 other big-name tech companies based in small-town America”

    http://www.businessinsider.com/big-tech-companies-headquartered-small-us-towns/#ibm-7

  2. Some interesting things perhap worth BR getting a guest blog from someone who is knowledgeable is “places” in Virginia that have a different status than counties… and the differences.

    Here’s the starting point:

    There are 38 independent cities in Va.

    There are 190 incorporated towns – more than a few than are grandfathered to be a town with a population of less than 1000.

    There are 362 unincorporated “towns” also called unincorporated communities.

    Finally .. SOME of the unincorporated communities are Census Designated places – CDPs which are defined thusly: ” CDPs are populated areas that lack separate municipal government, but which otherwise physically resemble incorporated places. ”

    I think one of two blog posts explaining the differences in terms of powers and authorities would be informative and useful in discussions…

    For instance, do incorporated towns have additional capabilities in attracting industry and jobs ?

    or another…. why are some cities – and towns reverting to a lower status in Virginia recently?

    Since BR has a focus on Virginia – and speaks often to Virginia issues – like South Boston – if there are volunteers out there among it’s readers to opine about such things.. please step forward! I KNOW there are SOME… one is a sometimes commenter named Bosun… who .. more often than not .. offers tidbits of info not generally known by other readers..

    so how about it? Maybe a few posts about how citie and towns are organized and operate in Virginia?

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