This will be an unfashionable statement in some quarters, we realize, but it is the truth: Some of the most creative thinking about building a new economy in rural Virginia is coming from the Republican state legislators who represent far Southwest Virginia.
You can argue that they’re not doing enough, if you want, but when we look at how little some localities and their representatives are doing to prepare for the future — or even the present — these guys look like rock stars. Consider:
Last year, Del. Will Morefield, R-Tazewell County, teamed up with an unlikely ally — a liberal African-American Democrat from the other side of the state — to pass what seemed to some a radical series of tax breaks aimed at encouraging companies to locate in economically-distressed parts of the state. On that score, Morefield’s rural district in Southwest Virginia district has much in common with the urban district that Del. Lashrecse Arid represents in Petersburg.
Last month, this new law notched its first success, when a Canadian manufacturer of specialty caps for everything from beverages to pharmaceuticals, announced it would put a new plant (and 48 jobs) in Russell County. Polycap LLC cited the new law as one reason why it chose the location in Lebanon over competitors in Ohio and Ontario. No one thing will build a new economy (unless maybe it involves Amazon) but this seems a potentially important tool.
Also last year, Del. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County, and state Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Russell County, sponsored a bill that would allow localities to designate abandoned schools as “opportunity zones” eligible for tax breaks, as well. Southwest Virginia has a lot of schools that have closed as the population declines; the idea here is that those could be converted into incubators for start-ups. That alone won’t draw high-tech entrepreneurs to rural areas, but, as we said before, no one thing will, so we better start doing lots of little things.
This year, Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington County, sponsored a little-noticed bill that could be a potential game-changer for getting broadband internet into rural areas. Virginia’s two big utilities — Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power — are getting ready to run lots of high-fiber as part of their upgrade to “smart grid” technology that lets them better manage their electric loads. If the utilities are running new fiber anyway, why not add a little bit more to get broadband to previously-unserved areas? No other state has done this; O’Quinn’s bill instantly drops the cost of extending broadband into rural areas and makes Virginia a national leader.
There was another bill the General Assembly passed this year that hasn’t gotten much attention, but could someday be looked back on as the instrument that helped a new economy. Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, and Chafin sponsored a bill to create something called the Southwest Virginia Energy Research and Development Authority. Kilgore says this came out of a brainstorming session with fellow Southwest Virginia legislators. The region’s central problem is that the coal industry is dying. We can debate how quickly or slowly it’s dying, but even coal country legislators recognize that coal is not their future. Still, could the region’s coal heritage be leveraged somehow?
“As we discover new sources of energy, what better place than Southwest Virginia?” Kilgore asks. Somebody else might give a different answer to that question, but the rationale for Southwest Virginia goes like this: It was an energy center for coal; why couldn’t it be a center for researching what comes after coal?
This isn’t the first time we’ve heard that idea. During the 2017 governor’s race, then-candidate Ralph Northam proposed that the University of Virginia’s College at Wise become a national center for research into renewable energy. We haven’t heard anything about that idea since Northam became governor; this bill by some Republican legislators might actually make a Democrat’s idea a reality. The bill creating the authority doesn’t say where the center would go, but it’s logical that should be attached to a university — and UVa-Wise is the only four-year state school in the coalfields. (Indeed, it’s the only four-year state school west of the New River.)
The bill creating the authority doesn’t say much of anything, actually, but Kilgore has lots of ideas. For a legislator from coal country, he spends a lot of time talking about a topic that was once verboten: Renewable energy. “One reason you can’t do the Green New Deal,” Kilgore says, “is because they don’t have a battery.” The sun doesn’t always shine; the wind doesn’t always blow. But instead of citing those as reasons to discount renewable energy, Kilgore looks in another direction: Somewhere, researchers are going to create batteries big enough to store renewable energy — why shouldn’t Southwest Virginia try to get in on that action? He sees the potential for federal grants flowing to such a research center. “We have to re-invent ourselves,” he says. He’s right, of course, and these are easy words to say, but Southwest Virginia legislators are actually trying to make this happen.
Now, the big question: Will this work? There are lots of energy research centers around the country, from universities such as Stanford University and the University of Chicago to government facilities in places with such notable names as Los Alamos and Oak Ridge. In some ways, Southwest Virginia is late to the game. Better late than never, though.
There’s a just-started Graphene Research Center in Wise. Graphene is compound that has only recently been discovered; some scientists hail it as a chemical miracle because it’s very thin, very strong and conducts electricity like nobody’s business. For computer chips, it could be even better than silicon. It’s also made from . . . carbon, something that the far Southwest Virginia sits on top of. There’s also interesting research taking place at Virginia Tech and elsewhere into rare earth minerals — critical for computers — and how they can be distilled from, you guessed it, coal.
It’s not hard to imagine an energy research center in Southwest Virginia becoming an important place for developing both of those things into marketable applications. The key development for now is that we’re seeing some imagination from what some cynics might think is the unlikeliest source of all — politicians.