Leaders discuss area’s future

Published 11:47 am Saturday, October 23, 2010

Editor’s Note: This is the last in a three-part series marking one year since International Paper announced it would close its Franklin mill, eliminating 1,100 jobs. Today’s article features responses from local government and economic development leaders, who visited with the staff of The Tidewater News on Monday. Participants were Franklin Mayor Jim Councill, Southampton County Administrator Mike Johnson, Isle of Wight County Board of Supervisors Chairman Phil Bradshaw and John Smolak, president and chief executive officer of Franklin Southampton Economic Development Inc.

Q: Is it helpful that we’re not a union town anymore?

SMOLAK: From the perspective of the statewide look at it, Virginia is still a right-to-work state — the northernmost right-to-work state. To some companies it’s an important issue; to others it’s probably not as much on the radar screens, so I think it just depends on their corporate thoughts and how they deal with that issue. But as a general statement, most companies would prefer a non-union environment in which to work.

COUNCILL: We’ve heard that the lack of union would be a major plus for smaller businesses particularly, and the mere fact that IP was there had held back regional development here, which I really hadn’t paid that much attention to and didn’t realize that impact. I just figured that there were other reasons, but they didn’t want to be an incubator business for their employees to go to IP.

A former Franklin person told us Friday that the unions and the availability of going to IP that no longer existed would be a really big help in this region, especially for smaller 30-, 40-, 50-member companies.

Q: Think 10 years out. As you envision the new economy of Western Tidewater, what do you see?

JOHNSON: I’d like to see it more diversified than it’s been in the past. I think we have learned a valuable lesson in having so many of our eggs in one basket, and I think I’d like to see a better diversified economy, a greater mix of smaller and medium-sized businesses than the one big fish.

COUNCILL: Dotting (Highway) 58 and dotting (Route) 460 and everywhere in between — that whole corridor.

BRADSHAW: I think long-term 460 is going to be the hottest corridor and it’s going to impact Southampton County significantly because on that corridor, they’ve got the land. With the limited-access interstate for 460, that’s the No. 1 priority of the governor; you’ve got the high-speed rail and you’ve got the light rail that’s all looking at that corridor. It’s going to change the whole complexion of what comes through. So I think in the next 10 years, that’s going to be your hottest spot. The town of Windsor has really got to be prepared and on up 460 to Ivor.

Q: We’ve got huge pushback locally on spending the next nickel. How do you overcome that?

JOHNSON: Get some return on what you’ve already got. I think clearly we have invested strategically and sacrificially, but it’s important that we begin to get some return on that investment before we invest anymore.

BRADSHAW: I think a lot of it has to do with balancing, and that’s one of the things that we’ve been very fortunate in Isle of Wight is the balance.

I know we’re larger than Franklin and Southampton, we’ve got the northern corridor on Route 17, which has the growth, but believe it or not, 85 percent of our county is rural and will remain rural. We have no desire of developing it, and a lot of times it creates heartburn.

Q: Each of you have people in your locality who don’t like change. They want things to stay the same. It’s the reason they came here. It’s the reason they’ve stayed here. Is it a struggle to build a new economy and try to balance it with that mindset?

JOHNSON: Sure it’s a struggle. Now I would say at least from our elected officials’ point of view, they recognize that change is imminent, so the real challenge, I think, is to try to direct that growth and change into areas that have been planned for and to areas it will be compatible with.

Agriculture has long been the leader in Southampton County and will remain a leader. We have very deep agricultural roots, and we don’t apologize for it, and we certainly want to do everything that we can to protect and promote agriculture, but we also recognize that we are going to need new investment in this community. So the idea is, let’s try to steer it and direct it into the areas that we planned for.

Q: What’s wrong with being a bedroom community to metropolitan Hampton Roads? Why has that become a negative over the years? Why shouldn’t we celebrate our proximity to metropolitan Hampton Roads?

COUNCILL: (Before I became an elected official), I thought residential was a moneymaker, but it really isn’t until you get to a certain size house and a certain limited number of children. Otherwise, all of your revenue is tied up in providing services and education.

But providing for a bedroom for people who have empty nests and people who want to semi-retire or retire, I think, is a very profitable measure. They demand very few services, they’re good citizens, they participate, they shop, and I think it would be a new economy for us that would be appropriate, as long as we can manage the children aspect of it. You can’t do all 55 and over communities.

I think we ought to look at it.

JOHNSON: I think the catalyst and the end result of successful community and economic development will always be job creation. I think if you look at communities that have been successful, they have created jobs at home. Now I’m not saying we shouldn’t welcome people that work outside of the area, but I think it is incumbent upon us to create an environment where people will want to invest in our community and create jobs in our community.

BRADSHAW: Isle of Wight is pretty much a bedroom community. Usually when you start building subdivisions, you expect .64 kids per household. We’re nowhere near that. Everybody thinks the school population in Isle of Wight has increased. If you go back over the last 20 years, it’s flat lined.

Subdivisions create demand for medical and commercial services. Your medical and your commercial are your hottest prospects for rural local governments and counties today. That’s where you’re going to have your revenues come in and create the jobs.

It’s got to be a balance. You just can’t build subdivisions.

Q: If the goal is job creation, what’s a fair timetable for judging your efforts? Five years after the creation of Franklin Southampton Economic Development, Inc. and one year after the mill closure announcement, when can people reasonably expect some job creation?

COUNCILL: We started this venture when the economy peaked and it’s been flat ever since, and so it’s been a tough time for anybody to be in this market, but it hasn’t derailed or stopped the effort. We’ve been in the running for a number of different projects that, for a variety of reasons, have gone elsewhere and that’s the nature of the beast. But if we’re not actively pursuing that, we’ll never get anything.

This whole process is a laborious, tedious, long-term project. But I think we’re on the verge of being able to see the efforts of five years worth of commitment, and whether it’s one year, two years, three years out, we’re so close to good things. For anybody to even think about questioning the efforts that have been put out so far…it just takes time.

I don’t have a defined time, but I do have an appreciation for the effort that’s gone into it that. I think is worth every single nickel because at some point in time, it’s going to happen, and we’re going to be able to look back and see that it was the right thing to do.

JOHNSON: I think what we can say is we have put ourselves in a position where we are competitive with any community in the country for certain types of projects, and we’ve got a marketing team that I would put up against anybody. They’re out here actively and aggressively selling our communities. I’m confident we’re on the right path, and I’m confident that good things are coming. I can’t tell you six months, nine months, 12 months, but it’s coming.

Q: Any chance of bringing Isle of Wight into the Franklin-Southampton economic development partnership on a formal basis?

COUNCILL: I think it’s a very good open question. There’s been no work done in that regard other than I can tell you that the Franklin Southampton Economic Development board is very open to discussions with Isle of Wight. Where does that lead? I don’t know.

I will say that I’ve never seen two groups that aren’t together work so well together. It’s not about win or lose or you or me; it’s about us and I think that’s very genuine on both parts.

BRADSHAW: I think everything needs to be discussed and needs to be put on the table. If you don’t talk about it, you don’t know what the opportunities are. The governor is marketing us as a region; we’re the Sweet Spot of Virginia. We have to be in a position to step up and use what the governor has already done.

I have not been satisfied with our (economic development) results. That’s because we have not put the resources that we need in it. We have excellent plans and we have excellent staff. But we got complacent at times and we’re changing our whole perspective as far as how we’re looking at economic development in Isle of Wight.

I’ve never been satisfied with economic development in Isle of Wight County because my expectations are so high. I think our region is the greatest in the state and that we should be getting more attention from the state than we’re getting, because of our resources.