My plan for economic growth in rural Virginia

Ralph Northam
Jul 18, 2017 · 9 min read

I’m from rural Virginia, and as governor, I am committed to making sure Virginia’s economy works for everyone — no matter who you are, no matter where you’re from. I grew up on the Eastern Shore with the Chesapeake Bay as my backyard — name a job out on the water, and I’ve probably had it.

When I travel around the commonwealth, I hear a lot of folks say they’re from rural Virginia, but not enough who say they’ve stayed in rural Virginia. And that’s what we need to fix.

Rural Virginia has fewer skills training programs than Virginia’s metro areas, which makes it harder to attract investments and new businesses. This leads to folks moving away from rural areas to find work, and that draws out the cycle of under-investment and fewer skills training opportunities in rural areas. In fact, the United Way just found more than half of Southwest Virginia struggles for basic needs, and that’s true of other parts of the commonwealth as well. As governor, working with our General Assembly, we’ll ensure that every Virginian who wants a good-paying job can find a place in our economy.

As governor, I’ll concentrate on a set of solutions centered on three main areas: building a skilled workforce, encouraging entrepreneurship and startups, and leveraging and growing our infrastructure.

Better Skills, Better Jobs

The G3 Program

The G3 Program- Get Skilled- Get a Job- Give Back is my proposal to develop a skilled workforce to fill the essential, good-paying new collar jobs of the 21st century in cybersecurity, computer programming, clean energy, healthcare, and other key areas with a high demand for jobs.

Financing the G3 program would cost our commonwealth an estimated $37 million per year — and here’s how it’ll work. The commonwealth will guarantee funding for last-dollar tuition and fees for any Virginian who’d like to pursue a workforce training credential or an associate degree in a targeted, new-collar job area. The community college system will provide the training and mentoring to ensure each student completes the program and obtains a degree or certification.

What’s more, each applicant will be matched with an experienced mentor. These mentors will guide and support students through the training, and later act as a counselor to help them find an in-demand job after graduation.

And here’s the thing — this isn’t a government handout. Upon completing the associate degree or workforce training credential, the student must pledge a one-year commitment of paid public service with a few different options, ranging from non-profit organizations, small businesses, local or state government entities, or seeking out work in an economically depressed area of the commonwealth where their new skills are needed.

Skills for Success: Transitioning our Active Duty Soldiers to the Civilian Workforce

Virginia has the fastest growing veteran population in the country. From the world’s largest naval base in Norfolk to the Pentagon and Quantico, we are enormously grateful for our service members and their families who call Virginia home. And when our service members make the transition to civilian life, we want them to put roots down right here in Virginia. As a veteran of the United States Army, I know there is not a more highly-skilled or responsible workforce than that of our active duty soldiers.

Governor McAuliffe and his administration should be applauded for the fantastic work they have done in this area, specifically with Virginia Values Veterans (V3), a public-private partnership that has resulted in the hiring of over 24,000 veterans by Virginia businesses. I will continue the tremendous work of the V3 program, and it will be one of the top priorities of my Secretary of Veterans & Defense Affairs to continue to help our active duty members transition to the civilian workforce.

These men and women are some of the most capable, solutions-oriented people on earth, and if we give them the tools, they can drive our economy. In Southside, at Fort Lee, there is a pilot program right now that equips active duty service members with multiple industry-recognized credentials prior to them even leaving the military. At last check, they had a 100% employment rate. By leveraging federal assistance, we should be replicating similar programs at military installations across the commonwealth.

Virginia’s Rapid Readiness Program

The G3 Program will do an excellent job preparing our workforce to fill the new-collar jobs found throughout Virginia. Though, in order to expand a current company’s footprint, or bring a new company to the commonwealth, a unique skillset is oftentimes required to meet that company’s needs. We need to be nimble and able to adapt our training in real-time to make Virginia the most attractive place to expand or locate.

I propose that we create a Virginia Rapid Readiness Program, a model similar to that of Georgia and Louisiana, and create flexible, business-oriented workforce training programs across the commonwealth, staffed by a robust team of the commonwealth’s economic development professionals and within the Community College and Higher Ed centers. By making our system responsive to the needs of specific businesses, we can help ensure that our limited education resources are best-targeted to get more Virginians hired in high-paying jobs. We could get this program started here in Virginia with a ten million dollar investment, with funding tied to business participants, number of projects delivered and individuals successfully trained. As I travel throughout rural Virginia, tour megasites, and talk with large manufacturers and economic developers, the top concern I hear again and again is whether we have the skilled workforce necessary to grow and attract new jobs and industries.

Expanding UVA-Wise

I have previously advocated for significantly expanding the size and scope of educational offerings at The University of Virginia at Wise. This expansion will be an economic engine for Southwest Virginia and surrounding areas. By concentrating on graduate-level and PhD programs and areas of high need and high growth like cybersecurity, unmanned aerial systems, energy, and computer engineering and programming, we will build on areas where UVA-Wise is already doing well and be focused on creating the jobs of tomorrow. Expanding UVA-Wise would require a combination of public and private funding, and would cost our commonwealth an initial $15 million, with a possibility of scaling up funding over time.

We have a unique opportunity with this expansion to work with all relevant stakeholders, leveraging both public and private investments, to transform UVA-Wise into an international destination for students and researchers. This will have a tremendous effect on the regional economy because when you can attract students and top talent from around the world for research and development, grants will follow. And with grants and applied research, business opportunities will soon follow. And structured correctly, these businesses will not only start up in Southwest Virginia, but they will remain and grow.

As a graduate and later assistant professor at Eastern Virginia Medical School (EVMS) in Norfolk, I have seen this kind of transformation firsthand. Over the past 20+ years, I have grown my own medical business in Norfolk and watched as EVMS has developed into an internationally recognized medical school through groundbreaking research. UVA-Wise, in the heart of Virginia’s coalfield region, is primed to unlock this same kind of innovation in cybersecurity, unmanned aerial systems, and energy.

Making Rural Virginia More Competitive

A Simple Startup Tax Plan

In order to attract and retain new businesses in rural and economically depressed regions of Virginia, we need to provide competitive incentives to entrepreneurs and business owners. As a small business owner myself, I understand what it is like to scale up a business in the early years. That is why I am calling for a zero BPOL and merchant’s capital tax for new startup small businesses in rural or economically distressed areas for the first two years. This will drive economic activity and startups to rural areas, and result in no loss in existing revenue to local governments. Though, when these businesses succeed and take root in rural communities, their local governments would see a significant financial boost after the second year — a win, win.

Broadband For All

In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order to establish the Rural Electrification Administration to “initiate, formulate, administer, and supervise a program of approved projects with respect to the generation, transmission, and distribution of electric energy in rural areas.” The rationale and urgency to provide rural America with electricity in the 1930s is now very clear.

What was electricity is now broadband. We’ve all heard about the digital divide — and it’s very real here in Virginia. Hundreds of thousands of Virginians, including tens of thousands of school children, don’t have good access to reliable high-speed internet services. Without broadband internet, it’s difficult to promote and conduct a business, students can’t do their homework, and no one can participate fully in the digital society we’ve created. This is absolutely unacceptable in 2017.

Fortunately, we have champions such as Senator Mark Warner who have fought for this issue at the state and federal level, along with smart people in the public and private sectors who are coming together to offer some solutions. For example, Virginia’s Tobacco Commission — along with Mid-Atlantic Broadband Company and Microsoft — deployed a unique pilot project in Southside, Virginia. The project utilizes unused portions of television broadcast spectrum to push out high-quality wireless broadband. So far, more than 100 households have been connected — and that number should reach 1,000 by the year’s end.

Under this innovative public-private program, Virginia’s share of the cost is $500,000, leveraging private investment for a total investment of $1 million. The commonwealth should look to replicate this successful program across rural Virginia. My administration will look for additional ways to partner with industry through a series of requests for information (RFIs) to define options for broadband buildout — which will lead to a statewide plan for broadband deployment in rural Virginia.

That’s why, in my administration, I’ll be pulling together disparate efforts throughout the commonwealth, like the Broadband Advisory Council, the Center for Innovative Technology’s Broadband Project, and the Department of Housing and Community Development, and placing them under the direction of a cabinet official who will be responsible for getting more people connected.

It is time for all of our stakeholders — public and private — to work collaboratively and agree on a set of broadband goals for the commonwealth. Similar to the legislation Minnesota has passed, Virginia needs a clear set of metrics in order to evaluate broadband access, upload and download speeds, as well as Virginia’s rank among our neighbors. I won’t accept any measure of success other than more households and businesses online, and I can promise that tens of thousands more will be by the end of my term.

Expanding Renewable Energy and Growing the Economy

I’m committed to working with our utility companies and the General Assembly to remove barriers that stand in the way of developing and expanding clean energy efforts. As previously stated, with advances in technology and the growth of the solar market, we are now able to make major strides with net metering — essentially, households and farms that generate a surplus of energy can feed it back to the grid.

The General Assembly delegation from the coalfields should be recognized for their proposal on hydroelectric storage. This is a promising concept that, if successful, will reclaim abandoned mines and create new energy and jobs. As the delegation notes, there is no “silver bullet” when it comes to reviving the economy of rural Virginia, and it will require the ultimate “team effort” — the executive and legislative branches working together, and Republicans and Democrats working across the aisle in good faith. After all, a good idea is a good idea.

Growing our renewable energy portfolio in rural Virginia will be a strategic asset in recruiting new businesses. In my home county of Accomack on the Eastern Shore, the commonwealth’s largest solar farm is in the process of being built, which will ultimately power several data centers owned by Amazon. In Southwest Virginia, we have promising leads for similar projects, but a regulatory framework and out-of-state utility are halting progress. In cases like this, I will work with the General Assembly to address this issue and others so we can grow our renewable energy portfolio and attract more businesses, like these data centers, to the commonwealth.

Ralph Northam

Written by

Virginia’s lieutenant governor. Husband, father, doctor, and veteran, and candidate for governor.