MARION — A decision to provide a $2 million grant to a veterinary school in far Southwest Virginia highlighted the ongoing division within the tobacco commission about how best to invest in economically struggling regions.
The Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission approved the grant Thursday following two days of discussion about whether the larger-than-usual allocation to the Lincoln Memorial University-College of Veterinary Medicine was a smart use of funds.
The commission has had similar debates in the past about identifying worthwhile projects and whether investing in them with public money from a national tobacco settlement will benefit the economically distressed regions of Southside and Southwest Virginia.
“It’s time to start looking at throwing some long passes to figure out what’s in the best interest of the region,” said Evan Feinman, the tobacco commission’s executive director.
Nobody on the 28-member commission, composed of lawmakers and gubernatorial appointees, disagrees that the veterinary school is doing great work and is good for Lee County. The school opened its main campus in Harrogate, Tennessee, in 2014, in response to a growing need for veterinarians across the country. The Virginia campus is located about 15 minutes away in Ewing. The commission approved $4.1 million in grants in 2013 to assist in the establishment of the Virginia school.
“There’s nothing going on in Lee County, Virginia. How do we grow it?” said Autry O.V. “Pete” DeBusk, chairman of Lincoln Memorial’s board of trustees.
Annual enrollment in Lee County is 96 students. Students come from 46 different states. The veterinary school has graduated two classes so far, and 34% of them are practicing in the Appalachian region, which stretches from New York to Mississippi. The school encourages students to work in Appalachia after they graduate.
There are very few housing opportunities in Ewing, so some students live with residents. Busk said building apartments is in the future. Housing, groceries and other consumption has provided an economic boost to the area. The growth has led to sewer and water system development.
Enrollment is expected to more than double, so the veterinary school sought $4 million from the tobacco commission to go toward a new building.
“This thing is really performing beyond belief,” DeBusk said.
So why should the commission provide a $4 million grant when it’s having no problem filling seats?
The commission has staff to help legislators and others serving on the commission to provide guidance on grant applications. Because the veterinary school request exceeded the budget for the committee handling Southwest Virginia economic development grant requests, the staff didn’t make a recommendation on how to handle the application.
Feinman suggested offering a long-term, low-interest loan that he felt confident the school would have no problem paying back.
“We have a responsibility to do what we can because Lee County was a major tobacco producer,” said Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Russell, who was in favor of providing funds to the school.
Sen. Bill Carrico, R-Grayson, changed the grant amount to $2 million.
“In my career here, I’ve never seen anything take off like the veterinarian school, considering what Lee County had prior to it,” Carrico said.
The veterinary school grant was made possible because another major project fell through, meaning more money became available for Southwest Virginia projects. But the availability of those funds was unknown to the public until Wednesday.
“I believe that if the intent of this committee is to grow and support the regional economic future of Southwest Virginia, we ought not to reward only those grant applicants that were savvy enough to understand that these funds were going to be deobligated, but rather have a round when the funds are going to be made publicly available so that we can make a big swing at this,” Feinman said.
Feinman cautioned the commission members against approving the grant.
“There isn’t going to be in any realistic budgetary future an opportunity to invest in multimillion dollar projects in Southwest Virginia again through this committee,” Feinman said.
Feinman periodically urges the commission members against approving grants that aren’t likely to result in much-needed economic outcomes in the regions.
He often does it when the commission rejects the commission staff’s recommendations not to fund projects. Feinman spoke out earlier this year when the commission voted to extend a grant to Liberty University College of Osteopathic Medicine in Lynchburg, despite the school having completed its objectives and considered to be successfully operating.
The tobacco commission has invested in beneficial projects over the years, including expanded broadband and helping to build schools like the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research in Danville.
However, problems persist in Southside and Southwest Virginia, where there is a lack of good-paying jobs, ill health, financial difficulty to complete a degree or certification, and the population continues to decline.
Feinman has encouraged the commissioners to think boldly about investments rather than giving money to safe bets and projects that will do fine without tobacco commission funds.
“We’ve spent over $1 billion of tobacco commission money investing in Southwest and Southside Virginia,” Del. Will Morefield, R-Tazewell, said.
“We’re still losing population. If fact, we’ve got counties that have lost half of their population in the past 30 years alone. If we were making sound investments, we would be seeing returns on those investments.”