Something happened Thursday in Abingdon that might turn out to be very important.
To explain it, though, we need to rewind back to early 2017 and a curious political dispute that baffled many.The Republican legislators who represent the Southwest persuaded their colleagues in the General Assembly to put language in the state budget requiring the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority to give $500,000 to the Lenowisco Planning District Commission to fund a new marketing initiative for the entire region. Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed that provision and for a brief time the state’s political attention was turned to a place where it’s usually not: Southwest Virginia. At the time, there were dark rumors about what was really going on. It didn’t help that the Republican legislators didn’t trust McAuliffe or that the Democratic governor didn’t trust them. At the time, Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, said something that caught our ear: “The reason that we are struggling in Southwest Virginia is we need more leads. We’re trying to be able to market Southwest Virginia to international markets and on the West Coast — to places we’re not marketing now. We’ve got fiber everywhere. Heck, we ought to be out in Silicon Valley, saying, ‘Hey, we can do this, we can do that.”
That caught our ear because it was the first time we heard a legislator from coal country talking about something other than coal. Indeed, here was a legislator from Appalachia trying to figure out how to grab a piece of the high-tech economy.
That attempt to fund a marketing campaign obviously didn’t work —McAuliffe’s veto stood — but as Kilgore put it recently, “We didn’t give up.”
He turned instead the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission — conveniently, he’s the chairman. In May 2017, the commission appropriated $400,000, subject to a matching grant. That grant is now in hand from Point Broadband, a Georgia-based internet provider that last year acquired networks in Bristol and Scott County. We can only speculate what politics were employed to persuade the company to part with that kind of money, although Kilgore points out that it only takes a few new customers for Point Broadband to make that money back. Kilgore, needless to say, is a masterful politician.
The point here is that on Thursday the four legislators from far Southwest Virginia — Kilgore, Dels. Todd Pillion and Israel O’Quinn of Washington County and state Sen. Ben Chafin of Russell County — were able to announce a marketing campaign for Southwest Virginia funded to the tune of $800,000. Staffing this InvestSWVA program is Will Payne, most recently chief deputy of the state Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy. If you’re keeping score at home, you’ll notice that the Republican legislators are touting a former appointee of Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam. Furthermore, Invest SWVA has also contracted with one of Richmond’s most high-powered consulting firms, Hunton Andrews Kurth, which is headed by Todd Haymore, who was Secretary of Commerce and Trade under McAuliffe. So much for all the political speculation that ran rampant two years ago.
What’s really going on here, though, goes far beyond partisan politics. What we have here is a high-powered effort to change the economy of Southwest Virginia. That’s worth paying attention to.
Why do we need one more economic development entity? That’s a good question that ideally has a good answer. Kilgore’s concern has been that there’s no single entity trying to sell all of Southwest Virginia on a national or international level. There are lots of agencies serving individual communities or even multiple communities — but nothing covering everything from Wythe and Carroll counties west, which this initiative will. The Virginia Economic Development Partnership covers the whole state, but legislators in Southwest Virginia wanted something that had a singular focus on their region. Now they have it, at least for the next two years — which is what the project is funded for.
One of the first things InvestSWVA is doing is a survey of underground mine water in the region. “We have at least 10 mine pools that have over 1 billion gallons in them,” Payne says. Why is this important? Because data centers — the back operations of anything involving the internet — generate a lot of heat. It takes lots of water to cool them down. Southwest Virginia is sitting on a lot of water. Connect the dots in the right way and you suddenly have a business case for why those data centers should be located in the coalfields. Using mine water — instead of municipal water — “could save a data center $200,000 a year,” Payne says. That’s the kind of research that may be too big for local economic development groups but too small for the state; InvestSWVA is intended to fill that regional niche.
Let’s not kid ourselves here: The political connections matter — a lot. Over the years, lots of people have made the case that Northern Virginia technology companies should locate some of their operations in Southwest Virginia — the land is cheaper, the taxes are cheaper and there are schools such as the University of Virginia’s College at Wise that are producing computer-savvy graduates who otherwise leave the region. That may seem a logical argument to us but it’s sometimes hard to get that argument heard in Northern Virginia. Now it’s going to be a bit easier. Who represents the Northern Virginia Technology Council? Umm, Hunton Andrews Kurth. On Thursday, a representative from the Northern Virginia Technology Council was on hand in Abingdon to announce the formation of InvestSWVA. “We’ve had discussions with companies in Northern Virginia that are very interested in expanding their footprint,” Haymore says. This may be a way to interest some of them in locating in Southwest Virginia.
In two years we’ll have a much better sense of whether this initiative has worked. We know this much: This is something that hasn’t been done before. We also know this: The four legislators — Chafin, Kilgore, O’Quinn and Pillion — are intimately involved in this. “I keep them apprised on almost a daily basis,” Payne says. That’s unheard of. Legislators, well, legislate. These four legislators are acting almost as quasi-executives when it comes to trying to build a new economy for their part of the state. That’s never been done before.
It’s also high time we start doing some things that have never been done before. This seems one of those things.