When a Pennsylvania freight company announced recently it will build a new logistics hub in Pulaski County, officials said that was the culmination of a year-long courtship.
That same day, a California tea company announced it’s building a new factory in Franklin County, and officials said that was the result of a two-year search.
In reality, both of these decisions date back much further. Franklin County’s jobs announcement in 2020 really had its origin in 2012. In Pulaski County, the origin of that jobs announcement goes back decades — to something that happened in Roanoke in 1982 and something that happened in 1995 on the other side of the state.
For those who don’t like to wait in suspense, we’ll clue you in right now on our point today: We elect local officials for four-year terms, but the decisions they make have consequences that sometimes take decades to play out. The 33 people who will wind up working for the Patton Logistics Group in Pulaski County and the 56 people who will someday be employed by Traditional Medicinals in Franklin County — not to mention all the construction workers who will be involved in building those facilities — need to thank some politicians who may have long since passed from the scene.
These two companies aren’t locating to random pieces of land. Both are going to “business parks” —we used to call them “industrial parks.” Those parks didn’t happen by accident, and that’s where the politics come in.
Starting in the 1980s, the Roanoke Valley went through a series of economic shocks — which in hindsight we can recognize as the beginnings of a global economic transformation. Norfolk & Western’s headquarters was merged away in 1982. A decade later, in 1992, the homegrown Dominion Bank was suddenly swallowed up. Those are just the headliners to a long series of mergers, downsizing, acquisitions, and outright closures. By the early 1990s, it was estimated that 8,000 jobs within an 80-mile radius of Roanoke had disappeared. Community leaders responded by creating the New Century Council, which set about studying the local economy and proposing solutions. One of the more radical notions the council advanced was that the Roanoke and New River valley economies were connected — which today we accept as a given but which was not so readily understood back then. Another idea the New Century Council advanced was that the region didn’t have enough large-scale business parks. It also proposed a solution that was radical for its day — that local governments should join forces to create regional business parks and share both the expenses and the revenues.
Conveniently, events conspired to create a relevant example. In 1995, Motorola announced it was going to build a semiconductor plant in Goochland County that would employ 5,000 people. The plant never happened, but that’s beside the point. Local officials in this part of the state wanted to know why Motorola hadn’t come here. The answer: Motorola had looked at the region but there weren’t any sites big enough for what the company wanted to do.
Out of that came the New River Valley Commerce Park. Or, more accurately, it’s governing body, an entity called Virginia’s First Regional Industrial Authority. The authority includes 11 local governments from Bland County to Roanoke, an example of local cooperation so innovative that its legislative sponsor felt he had to sneak it past an unsuspecting legislature. Today, getting local governments to cooperate is official state policy, but that wasn’t the case then. Malfourd “Bo” Trumbo — then a Republican state senator from Botetourt County, now a semi-retired judge — was a wily political operator. He didn’t want the enabling legislation to get too much attention from those who back then saw local government cooperation as the first step toward world government socialism. His solution: He intentionally sought no co-sponsors, and wrote the bill in a way that made it look innocuous, even though it was really quite revolutionary. Today there are multiple examples of local governments creating joint business parks (Roanoke, Roanoke County and Salem are creating one on Wood Haven Road) but this is where it all began — with some legislative sleight-of-hand. Those future Patton Group workers ought to lift a cold one in Trumbo’s honor — and all those with the New Century Council, too.
Now for the more sobering part. The Commerce Park opened in 2002 and then sat vacant for 12 years. In 2014, Red Sun Farms opened a greenhouse there. The Patton Group will be only the second tenant. Does that mean the park has been a failure? That depends on your time horizon. Rome wasn’t built in a day, as much as we sometimes wish it were. Not even economic phenomena such as North Carolina’s Research Triangle sprang out fully-formed like Minerva from the head of Jupiter – they took decades to evolve. In some alternative universe, the Commerce Park wasn’t created at all — and those two employers went somewhere else. Would anyone prefer that?
By that scale, Franklin County’s Summit View business park is on a much faster track. The county started looking in 2012 for land, and bought the 550 acres for Summit View in 2015. That checked off the same box that the Commerce Park did — a regional deficit of large sites. Before Summit View, the territory covered by the Roanoke Regional Partnership economic development group didn’t have any ready-to-go sites bigger than 30 acres – yet nearly 54% of the inquiries it received were for 50 acres or more. Summit View helps fix that problem. It also helps fix a little piece of this problem: 60.8% of Franklin County’s workers leave the county in search of work. At last count, that was 13,122 a day. Is Franklin County OK with that? If not, how do you fix it without Summit View? Traditional Medicinals is the third and largest company to locate there. The company says its jobs will pay an average annual wage of $47,862, more than $13,000 higher than the county’s prevailing annual wage of $34,145. Those workers ought to thank the Franklin County supervisors who voted to move forward with Summit View. That decision wasn’t without controversy, but it’s always easier to complain than deal with the forces re-shaping the economy. That’s why when you vote for local officials, you shouldn’t ask what they’ll do about the next four years, but what they’ll do about the next 40.