Best jobs are homegrown

Published 8:38 am Saturday, December 12, 2009

This community’s industrial-development strategy in recent years has focused largely on its affiliations with regional and state organizations that court jobs for Virginia.

There’s no harm in those relationships, and with all of the media and political attention on International Paper Co.’s decision to close its Franklin mill, the odds are good that the state and regional guys will throw us a bone or two. They’d be remiss not to recognize the incredibly skilled — and available — workforce in Western Tidewater and steer some prospective employers our way.

Chasing smokestacks and warehouses from elsewhere can’t be the extent of the economic-development effort, however. The risk of coming up empty is too high.

Any effective industrial-development strategy must emphasize growing our own manufacturing jobs — jobs that will be less vulnerable to the whims of corporate giants and to hiccups in the global economy.

Indeed, a look back at this community’s industrial economy over the past century shows that the best, most stable jobs were those created by local investors — people who were smart, had a sound business concept, applied their own ingenuity and elbow grease, and built their businesses from the ground up, all the while being responsible corporate citizens who gave much back to the community that nourished them.

Camp Manufacturing is the best example, of course. For more than a century, it — and its successors — anchored the economy of Western Tidewater.

Franklin Equipment is another. For a half-century, the Drake family employed hundreds of local workers, paid them good wages, developed a product that became an icon in the forestry industry and contributed untold dollars and volunteer hours back to the community. The ending was sad, but 46 years is a successful run by any measure.

Two smaller — but still homegrown —companies that continue to prosper are Feridies Inc. and Hubbard Peanut Co.

On the other hand, name four employers that economic developers with the state of Virginia or Hampton Roads helped recruit to Western Tidewater. I can’t do it. Perhaps others can.

The point is that this community must look after itself.

A chunk of the hundreds of thousands of dollars that local governments and private foundations spend annually on economic development should be invested directly in the creation of local manufacturing jobs. This could take several forms. Most feasible would be an enterprise pool of money for planning grants and low-interest loans to local entrepreneurs.

The brainpower in this community — working and retired engineers, keen financial minds, strategic planners and human-resource professionals, to name a few — is impressive. Many more have moved away and become successful elsewhere but still love their hometown and care about its economic well-being. Imagine if that collective talent were unleashed behind a sound manufacturing concept. Many people of means would welcome the opportunity to invest in the future of the community they love.

And they would be much more loyal to Western Tidewater than would some outside company that could take jobs away as quickly as it creates them.