Ed Gillespie, the Republican candidate for governor, used last week’s debate in Wise to unveil his “regional plan for Southwest Virginia.”
We have more than a passing interest in the fate of Southwest Virginia, so let’s take a deeper look at what Gillespie proposes and how it compares and contrasts with that of Democrat Ralph Northam.
The first thing we notice is that the candidates for governor are actually talking about Southwest Virginia — and, indeed, rural Virginia in general. That’s a good thing, of course. However, we’re not convinced either candidate has ideas big enough and bold enough to match the urgency of the crisis that some localities face.
For instance, the economic problems of many rural localities are entwined with a demographic crisis —an unprecedented exodus of young adults.
The GO Virginia economic development council for Southwest Virginia recently issued a report that warned the region’s shrinking labor pool makes it hard not only to attract new employers, but also to retain existing ones.
Meanwhile, demographers at the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service have warned that the populations of the coal counties will decline even faster than they have been. Right now, the coalfields are losing about 600 people a year just through the natural process of deaths outnumbering births. People moving out simply add to that.
Now, here’s the problem: The region has a distinctly older population that’s getting even older. Even if we could persuade everyone in the coalfields to stay home, over the next decade the population of the coalfields will start to decline by at least 1,300 to 1,800 per year — because that’s how much deaths will outnumber births. In reality, of course, some people will continue to move out, so the population declines will be even steeper. Just to stay even, the coalfields will need to import a lot more than 1,300 to 1,800 people per year.
How does this even happen? Rural Canada has tried to fix a similar demographic collapse by encouraging immigration, but right now the United States is trying to cut back on immigration. Kansas has experimented with paying off college loans if young adults move into rural areas. Some rural communities in Manitoba and Nebraska have offered free or reduced building lots. Both Gillespie and Northam have some good ideas but neither go that far. Perhaps they should.
Regardless, any compare/contrast must begin with all the places where the two candidates agree:
n Both support expanding the University of Virginia’s College at Wise and adding graduate programs as a way to create a bigger economic engine in the heart of the coalfields. They have slightly different ideas. Northam wants to see UVA-Wise as a center for research into renewable energy, which fits into a larger theme that as coal declines, the coalfields should position themselves as a center for the next generation of energy. Gillespie proposes a more specific figure — doubling the present enrollment of 2,099 and focusing on cybersecurity, a field that UVA-Wise is already specializing in.
n Both have plans to extend broadband to rural areas. Northam doesn’t offer a metric, but cites Minnesota has a model that’s trying to get the whole state on broadband. Gillespie says he’ll cut the number of people unserved by broadband in half by the end of his term.
n Both also support industrial hemp, which wouldn’t transform anybody’s economy but does have the niche potential to create a new industry in certain localities.
n Both also support extending passenger rail from Roanoke to Bristol.
Now we move on to the differences. Northam proposes to waive certain taxes on start-ups in economically-distressed areas for a period of two years, which he says will encourage entrepreneurs to set up shop in rural communities. Gillespie says his statewide, across-the-board tax cut would be a particular benefit to rural areas. He says that’s because his tax cut would especially help small businesses and small businesses in rural areas are likely to have a disproportionate impact on the local economy.
Now, here are the downsides of both: Northam is essentially proposing a variant of enterprise zones, which have had mixed results nationwide. Gillespie’s tax cut would take effect only if certain revenue triggers are met, so that could mean it might never happen — but rural Virginia needs help now. Depending on your views on tax policies, both of these might be good ideas — but neither is guaranteed to produce immediate results.
Gillespie also wants to reinstate the coal tax credit, which Gov. Terry McAuliffe has blocked. That might save some coal jobs from disappearing, but at best can only slow the decline of the coal industry. It won’t create a new economy to replace it. That’s the big picture we need the next governor to focus on.
Beyond that, Gillespie offers up a lot more details. He proposes to host a “red carpet tour” for site selection consultants. That would be a good thing and such high-level attention shouldn’t be discounted. Just keep in mind that site decisions involve a complex matrix of factors beyond simple salesmanship.
The GO Virginia reports said the labor force in rural Virginia lacks the skills demanded by the 21st century economy. Northam has a somewhat complicated plan to get more students into community college, which would help address that. But neither he nor Gillespie go so far as Tennessee — where the Republican governor proposed, and the Republican state legislature enacted, a free system for community college.
Gillespie touts support for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which he says would create construction jobs in the region. That’s undoubtedly so; the question is whether the pipeline is worth the environmental trade-offs. Northam, of course, has said he takes no position on the pipeline, which has infuriated environmentalists even more than Gillespie’s embrace of natural gas.
Gillespie also touts a plan to “grow Virginia’s $21.9 billion outdoor industry — whose epicenter is in the Southwest Virginia region.” Part of that plan includes adding 50 new access points for put-ins on rivers. It’s difficult to argue with that, although some would say it’s hard to promote an outdoors culture when we’re tearing up the mountains with a natural gas pipeline.
So who’s best for Southwest Virginia? That depends on what you’re looking for.