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Bloom and bust

SoVaNow.com / October 15, 2009
I’ve neglected to comment in this space on the State of the County forum hosted by the Chamber of Commerce three weeks ago, but our front-page article on the event drew a quick reaction from several readers. One especially sharp-eyed businessman in town took exception to the comment by Mike Sexton, executive director of the IDA, that Halifax County has “figured it all out” when it comes to economic development. Come again?

Speaking as he was about a community with 12 percent unemployment, Sexton’s remark was, to put it kindly, curious. But rather than leave it at that, my businessman friend suggested going to the website of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership — where Sexton labored prior to coming to Halifax County — and checking out the information available there. A look at the data, he suggested, would be much more enlightening than an afternoon listening to speeches.

And so it was. I went back and looked at all 6,060 economic development announcements in the state of Virginia since 1990 — in other words, as far back as the reporting goes — to see how Halifax County compares with the rest of the state in terms of job creation. Before proceeding any further, it’s important to note that the numbers up on the VEDP website (http://www.yesvirginia.org) reflect new jobs announced by the governor — factory expansions, headquarter relocations, new industrial operations, that sort of thing. A new Hardee’s in town doesn’t make the cut, although the jobs there are just as real (and sometimes just as good) as positions announced through the governor’s office. Also, the job tally mostly covers private sector employment, but there are some government jobs thrown in, too. Lastly, but certainly not least, it should be noted that actual job creation often lags far behind the much-heralded official numbers. Looking over the list of economic development announcements in Southside Virginia, I easily spotted a dozen cases where the advertised number of jobs fell well short of the reality. Let’s remember, too, that some of the companies that arrived on the scene with great fanfare have since folded.

So with all those caveats aside, what the data show is what we already know — job creation in Halifax County over the past two decades has been pretty blah. Since 1990 there have been 2,522 “official” newly created jobs announced by the governor’s office, although in the past 10 years (from 2000 forward) the gains have slacked off a bit — only 1,004 new positions added since that time. Unfortunately, the further you look back on the scoresheet of economic development “wins,” the mustier it starts to get — with names like Burlington, Daystrom and O’Sullivan to jog the memory.

As you can imagine, Halifax County sits fairly low on the totem pole when one considers the job creation picture statewide; Fairfax County, to whom we are so close in name if nothing else, has seen 116,777 new jobs announced through the governor’s office since 1990. (Since Fairfax County’s population is roughly 1 million, one could make the case that Halifax’s rate of job creation hasn’t been much worse than Fairfax’s, but the obvious difference is a lot of companies in Fairfax don’t bother notifying the state government — or seeking incentives from it— when they decide to add employees). Rather than indulge in comparisons that are hopelessly stacked against us, however, I thought it would be more useful to see how Halifax has fared in relation to similar communities, which is why I took the data for the 41 counties and cities that fall under the Virginia Tobacco Commission.

With 9,088 new jobs since 1990, Henry County tops the list in the so-called tobacco region — ironic, given that Henry’s unemployment rate is higher than our own. Danville comes in next, with 6,952 announced jobs, followed by Pittsylvania (4,950), Mecklenburg (3,445) and Wythe (3,279) counties. Halifax County ranks 12th out of 41 communities, between the City of Bristol and Wise County and well ahead of such bereft counties as Brunswick (30th of 41 localities), Charlotte County (34th) and Cumberland and Buckingham, who between them — 63 newly announced jobs since 1990 — probably wish they had more Hardee’s around.

Going back to what Mike Sexton said: clearly we haven’t figured out anything when it comes to economic development, although I think our new IDA director deserves some slack here inasmuch (1) his comment came at a forum to promote a positive outlook on Halifax County and (2) it’s not like the problem suddenly arose on his watch. Sexton told listeners at the forum that three new companies will soon be coming to Halifax County, and if that’s true then the IDA under his watch will have automatically enjoyed more greater success than past iterations. I happen to think Sexton is a great salesman for the community, but the hustle and gab only take a salesman so far — the product’s got to be there, too. (And setting oneself apart in the brutally competitive business of economic development is not selling-ice-to-eskimos stuff, either).

If not Sexton, who does have something to answer for? The IDA, of course, and throw in the Board of Supervisors, too — they’re responsible for what in my mind is the single most ridiculous “deal” in the annals of economic development that I can recall, the leasing of significant chunk of land in the fairgrounds industrial park to NOVI Energy (remember them?) for a whopping one dollar. If we’re going to spend significant sums developing come-ons for prospective industries, it would be nice not to simply give them away in return for nothing. For way too long, local movers-and-shakers have imagined that Halifax County’s problems aren’t so great that they can’t be overcome with some crackerjack deal-making. Unfortunately, that’s encouraged the approach of trying to target jobs rather than lay the groundwork for them. I would have loved to see the $22 million sunk into Riverstone go to the schools instead. How many high-tech executives might pass on Halifax County because the school division was forced to eliminate the Governor’s School program for their kids?

Yesterday, The Prizery hosted Charleston mayor Joseph Riley as guest speaker at the Art & Creative Economy conference in town. Riley is widely hailed as one of the best mayors in America and his hometown of Charleston is simply a fabulous place, so naturally the cynical inclination is to believe that he (and they) share nothing in common with Halifax County. And you know what? It’s more true than the hoi polloi around here want to acknowledge. Riley spent most of his time talking about the joys of developing the arts scene in Charleston, not only as a driver of economic growth but also as tonic for the soul. He laid out a vision of community development infused with generosity, passion and humanism which is so much different than the straitjacketed, supposedly hard-nosed approach that our business class prides itself for. We’ve spent millions dressing ourselves up for outsiders but scrimped on things that would help develop the potential of our people, so different from the investment in magnet schools and city parks that Riley laid out as keys to Charleston’s success. Let a thousand flowers bloom, the message might be. Given the bitter harvest of our past jobs efforts to the community, it’s an idea worth pondering.


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