Keeping everything in perspective

Published 8:12 am Saturday, March 12, 2011

by John J. Smolak

The saying that “patience is a virtue” is a great way to keep a proper perspective on life’s expectations.

Patience is needed as our community leaders tackle the enormous task of bringing back economic hope.

For those of us who have been involved in the economic development process, we know full well our focus has to be what we can control, not what we can’t control.

A significant area where locally there is no real control is the poor national economy. Add the recent political and social unrest in the Middle East, and you have instability in oil-based energy prices for years to come.

Timing can be unfortunate. The ability to provide economic recovery for our community has been affected by the deepest economic recession of memory for most of us. Opportunities for quick success remain challenging. Prospective investors are still hesitant to spend the millions of dollars it takes to create new private sector jobs. It might be good to understand what has been done with what we can control:

• Following International Paper’s closure, our energy focused on the immediate concern that all employees and our local families received as much help and support as possible. Local and state leaders marshaled financial resources, retraining and education resources so each affected IP employee and family had the opportunity to pursue new paths for earning a living.

• Local, state and federal officials strongly suggested IP consider new opportunities for the mill, not just the alternative to dismantle it. IP agreed to consider a reuse, though we have no control over the eventual outcome; at minimum new job and investment possibilities are being evaluated.

• Receiving a State Enterprise Zone designation was through our economic development efforts. Our request was in place with the state prior to IP’s closure. Enterprise Zones provide state and local incentives for new job creation and investment that helps both existing business and new industry.

• Support was then given to Isle of Wight County, through the legislative process, to receive Enterprise Zone benefits for the shared tax revenue district with Franklin that could encourage IP’s potential reuse.

• Give credit to Southampton County’s leadership for the vision and forward thinking to develop a new industrial business park with 245 developable acres and additional county infrastructure that is helping to attract numerous prospective businesses.

• Isle of Wight and Franklin Southampton Economic Development Inc. have worked together to continuously market our available industrial properties to the logistics and distribution industry, advanced manufacturing sectors and other targeted industries. If one of us succeeds, we all will benefit.

• Leaders are leaving no stone unturned with new prospective business leads. Follow-up is made with all prospect sources. It is a process that takes time and a network of professionals working together. Current leads are from the wood products, food processing, advanced manufacturing and green energy industries. Keeping engaged with them takes tremendous time, numerous meetings and visits to our area.

• The Franklin Business Incubator received grants of $700,000 to expand space and services to small businesses. Local economic development is also about creating jobs “at home” through entrepreneurial programs. Our Incubator Program currently supports 24 companies that employ 66 full-time and 44 part-time employees. Six companies have graduated and located their business in our community.

• Our Tourism Strategic Plan has been developed in concert with the Virginia Tourism Corp. A local tourism steering committee assists in promoting attractions and events. Development of a new tourism website and marketing materials will both help to capture tourism dollars.

• From 2005 to 2010, our region gained over $50 million in “announced” private sector capital investment and over 400 manufacturing and retail services jobs for area citizens. Money Mailer, Feridies and ITG-Narricot expanded. Southampton Terminals and J.T. Russell and Sons built new facilities and Lowes, Farm Fresh and now Tractor Supply have created new job opportunities.

The challenge of today’s business climate is competition — all states and communities want new jobs and investment. Being competitive also requires a great product to sell — developed sites and excellent buildings, educated workforce, infrastructure, good schools, excellent community assets and quality of life.

Our goals remain the same — to provide jobs that financially support the livelihood of families and economic investment, which is sustainable for the long term. In difficult economic times we all have responsibilities to help community leadership, keeping a positive attitude and expectations realistic.

JOHN J. SMOLAK is president of Franklin Southampton Economic Development Inc. He can be reached at