By Kathy Byron
Byron, a Republican, represents the 22nd District in the House of Delegates. She is also a member of the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission.
It has been 20 years since the General Assembly established the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission. Founded with a mission to promote economic growth and development throughout our region, the accomplishments and achievements of the tobacco commission have been great and far-reaching.
A skilled workforce being essential to attracting top employers, the tobacco commission prioritized workforce development from the very beginning. To date, we have invested more than $196 million in advanced education, helping more than 10,000 students obtain valuable degrees and credentials for in-demand careers.
To allow our region to compete for large-scale manufacturers, the commission helped create eight “megasites” across Southside and Southwest Virginia. These provide the tremendous project-ready space manufacturers customarily require before they will even consider locating in a particular area.
These forward-thinking, long-range investments have produced results. In Bedford, Campbell and Franklin counties, the work of the tobacco commission has brought more than $100 million in investments to improve our economy. But as the 20th century has given way to the 21st, it has become increasingly clear our entire region must have an asset that has become essential to economic growth and development: broadband internet access.
Regardless of whether they employ a handful of people or thousands, all employers need a high-speed broadband connection to do business. Most firms won’t consider locating in an area that cannot provide access to this vital service, both for their facilities and for the surrounding areas where their employees live. Local schools must have broadband access as well, since the quality of education is an important factor businesses consider in determining where to locate. Agriculture, too, now requires broadband access to utilize the best available technology to maximize production and profits.
If we are to be successful in continuing to attract new businesses to Central, Southside and Southwest Virginia, we must be able to offer them a reliable and fast broadband connection at work, school and home. Absent broadband access, the reverse is true: Many of our existing businesses will seek to relocate.
Beyond economic growth, broadband access is now essential to providing our children with a high-quality education. That includes access to the latest advancements both in and out of the classroom, like online learning programs, remote education options and the ability to work collaboratively on projects in an online environment. We know kids from homes without a broadband connection have worse post-secondary outcomes, even when you control for other variables.
In today’s world, the importance of broadband access cannot be overstated. Obtaining that access for our entire region has been a key focus of my tenure in public service. I chair Virginia’s Broadband Advisory Council, which has diligently and relentlessly worked to ensure broadband access is extended to unserved areas. As chair of the tobacco commission’s research and development committee, I successfully fought to obtain funding to extend broadband to significant portions of our area that had yet to receive it. Streamlining our ability to coordinate the extension of broadband in our region, a Lynchburg native, Evan Feinman, serves the dual roles as Virginia’s Chief Broadband Advisor and executive director of the tobacco commission.
The tobacco commission’s research and development committee has made consistent investments in broadband over the years. We approved grants to multiple entities totaling more than $140 million to build hundreds of miles of regional “middle-mile” broadband infrastructure. This infrastructure is essential to the creation of local networks, connecting them to the global internet. To help local providers get broadband access to consumers as soon as possible, the commission has been increasing investments in our Last Mile Broadband program, which has supported local efforts to bring broadband from our regional middle-mile “highway” and take it the “last mile” to an additional 71,000 homes and businesses in rural communities.
The commission’s latest investments in broadband are part of our continued effort to ensure that Central, Southside and Southwest Virginia can provide the highest quality of life and attract the jobs and investment necessary to build the diverse and vibrant economy we know is possible.
The expansion of broadband across Central, Southside and Southwest Virginia won’t happen overnight, of course, but the speed at which these projects are moving is very encouraging. After so many years of fighting for broadband access for underserved and unserved regions, it is heartening to see our efforts come together. Still, there remains much to be done. Our families, our businesses, our communities and our region deserve nothing less.
This first appeared in the Lynchburg News & Advance.