Can#8217;t be picky about jobs

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 14, 2008

In the new service-oriented, import-heavy American economy, communities no longer can be choosy about the type of jobs they attract.

The days of “chasing smokestacks” — factories that employ several hundred people at good wages — are over. With rare exceptions, manufacturing jobs have left America, perhaps permanently, for low-wage economies in China, Mexico and elsewhere.

Here in Western Tidewater, we should cross our fingers that we keep the industrial jobs we’ve got, most notably International Paper’s Franklin mill, and prepare for the possibility, if not likelihood, that one day we’ll lose them.

In 20 years, where will our people work? In 50 years?

Several unattractive possibilities exist:

– We can become a community of commuters who drive an hour for gainful employment — and relegate ourselves to being a “bedroom community” for urban centers to the east and northwest.

– If projected population growth materializes, we can hitch our wagon to the low-wage retail sector, though it’s interesting to note that, despite the opening of Lowe’s and Farm Fresh stores, unemployment rates in Franklin and Southampton County are higher than a year ago.

– We could shrivel up and die, of course. That might be OK for the handful who have several hundred acres and an inheritance, but for the vast majority of our citizens, who love this community, want to stay here and want to give their children and grandchildren a reason to stay here, economic opportunity is essential.

On the short list of emerging economic sectors in this country, two have good potential for our community. Health care is one, but that’s another column for another day. Of more immediate potential is warehousing and distribution.

Southampton County stuck its toe in those waters with the recent addition of Southampton Terminal. A 55,000-square-foot warehouse that opened in March is the first of five that New Jersey-based Gulf American Lines plans to build on 18.5 acres in the Southampton Business Park at Courtland.

Isle of Wight County wants to make a bigger splash by expanding the Shirley T. Holland Intermodal Park near Windsor from its current 400 or so acres to nearly 3,000. Its champions envision it becoming the warehousing/distribution site of choice for importers using the Port of Virginia, less than 35 miles away.

Some will scoff at the economic impact of warehouses. Indeed, in terms of job creation, the numbers are small. Southampton Terminal, in its contract with the county, promised to create 40 full-time jobs by 2010, though Sherief Singer, the company’s vice president, said in March that he expects the number to top 150.

Proponents of the Isle of Wight project have floated pie-in-the-sky estimates of 20,000 jobs over the next quarter-century. Even a small fraction of that number, however, would be welcome in the competitive economy of the 21st century.

And if the “upside” of the warehousing and distribution industry is limited, so is the downside. Other than the initial clear-cutting required for warehouse construction, the industry is environmentally friendly. There’s minimal noise, no smell and no production-related pollution. Major rail and highway arteries — Routes 58 and 460 — are in place, with the latter already scheduled for reconstruction.

On balance, given the limited alternatives, warehousing is an economic-development opportunity we should embrace.

Steve Stewart is publisher of The Tidewater News. His e-mail address is