By Starla Kiser

Kiser is a doctor from Wise County and the Democratic candidate for the House of Delegates for the seat that covers Dickenson County and parts of Russell County, Washington County and Wise County.

Over the past few months, far Southwest Virginia has experienced the detrimental effects of corporate greed. Blackjewel abruptly declared bankruptcy and took back our hard-working coal miners’ paychecks. Ballad Health closed medical services in our communities while increasing our healthcare costs. For too many years, most of our assets in Southwest Virginia have been owned by outsiders and a small group of business elite, with much of the wealth generated by our hard-working people leaving our region. We need fundamental change to realize a future where Southwest Virginians own the assets including real estate, business, and intellectual property, and where the wealth that we work hard for stays in our region. It will be our empowered local people, not outsiders, who will build the businesses and bring this true transformation to our region.

To realize this vision, our citizens need the right tools from a young age to become innovators. Our pioneering ancestors had to be self-sufficient to survive. We are still raised to be resourceful, gritty, and resilient, and these enterprising qualities make the most successful entrepreneurs. Our students need to realize they are just as intelligent and capable as those born in other zip codes across the country, so let’s teach them skills from a young age (e.g. coding and entrepreneurship) to prepare them for jobs in the 21st century. With these opportunities, there will be ideas for new businesses; coupled with an expansion of programs like Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority using seed capital grants and low-interest loans, we can help get these new businesses off the ground.

Second, let’s create an environment where these innovators and start-ups can thrive. We must expand rural broadband and attract capital investment so entrepreneurs can scale their businesses. Importantly, we must stop supporting policies that favor large corporations over our small business owners, or harm them altogether. As an example, it took legislative changes to allow the merger that created Ballad Health, and it is not surprising that this monopoly has negatively impacted our small business owners. Ballad has a financial stake, if not outright ownership, of everything from lab testing facilities, medical equipment companies, and skilled nursing facilities, to air ambulances and other transport services. Thus, Ballad will primarily refer to those services that will benefit them financially. Consequently, our local medical equipment companies and nursing facilities suffer a significant financial impact. Clearly, we cannot allow large corporations, like Ballad Health, and the same small group of business owners to repeatedly receive the tax incentives, government subsidies, and legislative changes, essentially monopolizing our resources. This is corporate welfare. Instead, our resources should be used to reduce the risk for new entrepreneurs and provide opportunities for those building breakthrough technologies that fulfill a clear need in Southwest virginia, like carbon-capture technology. We also need to cut regulation that hinders innovation and is harmful to small business, like certificates of need.

Next, our small businesses need customers, so let’s focus our development efforts on attracting the right industry that will provide high-paying and high-skill jobs. Our students need opportunities, or they will continue to leave our region. Thus, we need to attract companies and individuals with the same pioneering spirit as our ancestors- those who understand the true potential of Southwest Virginia, and not those wanting to take as much as possible from our region and leave. We cannot afford another Blackjewel or Ballad Health. Instead, we need responsible industry who will treat employees fairly, and an empowered workforce with a larger union presence to fight for the rights of our workers. We must also hold industry accountable to their promises when they receive tax incentives. Overall, it should be a privilege to do business in Southwest Virginia — to have the pleasure of getting to know our bright, hard-working people, to enjoy our rich culture, and to appreciate our vast resources. Thus, Southwest Virginia should negotiate new industry from a position of strength and not one of desperation. Unfortunately, Ballad Health’s downgrading of hospital facilities, which has reduced accessibility of medical services in our communities and negatively affected our economy, will also deter new industry.

Overall, I believe in the people of Southwest Virginia, and I know that we do not have to be dependent on outsiders to help us. Empowered and united, companies will no longer take advantage of us. We have everything we need right here in far Southwest Virginia, because we are the innovators, we are the entrepreneurs, and we are the pioneers. So, let’s work together to build a new Southwest Virginia that we all deserve.

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