‘Nothing more critical than getting those people back to work’

Published 8:39 am Friday, October 23, 2009

Lisa Perry was pretty sure what to expect as she headed to International Paper Co. for a special surprise announcement Thursday morning, and she was certain it wasn’t going to be good news.

“In the economic development business, this happens,” Isle of Wight County’s economic development director said of the call she received telling her the company had a major unscheduled announcement to make and that she needed to be there.

“You know, when you get that call, it’s never good news,” she said. “It’s always the worst day of your life.”

With International Paper accounting for about 25 percent of the county’s tax revenue and employing 208 Isle of Wight residents, Perry had ample reason to be worried about what the announcement would be.

“The ripple effect is huge,” she said.

Economic development, she explained, is all about cars in parking lots.

“The bottom line is seeing those cars in those parking lots. Every one of those cars represents a family. I can’t imagine how those people are feeling today.”

Even before arriving at the mill, Perry was considering similar announcements in modern Virginia history.

“If you’ve done any work in the rural South, you’ve encountered something like this,” she said, recalling the textile and furniture industries that used to be so important to the economy in some Virginia areas. “We saw the devastating impact that had.”

So, driving to the mill to hear the announcement, she got on the phone.

“I was already making calls to site consultants and commercial brokers,” she said. “We’ve got to get people thinking about Isle of Wight and the potential opportunity that might come from this. Nothing is more critical than getting those people back to work.”

Since Thursday morning’s announcement, Perry and other area officials have been busy devising a strategy both for finding work for the displaced IP employees and for replacing Isle of Wight’s lost tax revenue.

“Obviously, our concerns right now are with the families of the displaced workers,” she said, but she and other economic development officials from the Franklin area and from the state also will begin working to find suitors for the IP site.

In fact, knowing the danger of having so much of the county’s tax and employment base tied up in one company, Isle of Wight already had taken steps to diversify its industrial base when it began to develop an intermodal industrial park on U.S. Route 460.

“We have lived under the shadow of this realization for many years,” Perry said.

“This IP issue will make available new inventory. In bad news, you have to find opportunity. Immediately, your mind goes to ‘What can we do with this?’”