ABINGDON — Legislators and local officials have launched a marketing campaign for Southwest Virginia aimed at supporting economic development in the region.
At the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center in Abingdon on Thursday, Southwest Virginia legislators and business leaders described how InvestSWVA will bring together state and local leaders, economic development agencies and corporate stakeholders to attract new jobs to the region.
“I know everyone in this room knows and believes in their heart there are limitless opportunities for business development opportunities in Southwest Virginia, but we just haven’t always been able to catch the breaks,” Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington, told the crowd.
Will Payne, most recently the chief deputy of the state Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, is leading the project. The marketing initiative will last two years, so Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott, said the group will have to be “aggressive and strategic” and look for “quick wins.”
The Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, an independent board that doles out money for projects in economically depressed areas of the state, sent $400,000 to the initiative. Point Broadband, a Georgia-based internet provider, provided a match.
For instance, InvestSWVA will work with the Northern Virginia Technology Council, a trade association for the technology community in Northern Virginia, to market remote employment opportunities in Southwest Virginia.
Troy Murphy, the director of policy for the council, said a common complaint about its members is access to a qualified workforce. He said it’s his hope this new initiative could unlock a new market of employees.
“This first-of-its-kind partnership with the NoVa Council means Southwest Virginia will have seat at table with NoVa-based tech companies that want to tap into a new labor force,” Payne said.
Another initiative InvestSWVA will work on is to study underground mine water and its benefits in cooling data centers that generate a lot of heat. This week, the GO Virginia board, focused on spurring private sector growth and high-wage jobs to revitalize the state economy, awarded InvestSWVA a $50,000 grant to do that.
Virginia is the world’s largest market for data centers — giant storage facilities where large and small companies keep and disseminate their data — and the majority are clustered in Northern Virginia.
Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, said in a phone interview that interest in businesses using abandoned mine land is growing.
“I think a lot of it has to do with people wanting to be creative and recognizing the advantages to using the land,” Griffith said.
Griffith said he hopes InvestSWVA will look beyond data centers, too. He has worked to secure money through the federal Abandoned Mine Lands Pilot Program, aimed at reclaiming minelands and boosting economies in Appalachia. He thinks there is potential to pair that money with projects InvestSWVA is trying to advance.
The region has its challenges, such as access to quality health care and public schools whose infrastructure lags behind their counterparts in Northern Virginia.
Still, the legislators argue that a main reason the region can’t attract quality employers, especially in the technology industry, has to do with perception.
They say land and taxes are cheap. There’s a stream of students with computer skills coming from the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. It’s a beautiful place to live, and people won’t take over an hour to get home after driving through stressful traffic congestion. The cost of living is low.
“You can stretch a dollar really far in Southwest Virginia,” O’Quinn said. “It’s really a wonderful place to live, and I know people give skeptical looks sometimes when I say that.”