What does it take to compete?

Published 11:34 am Friday, August 16, 2013

by Mike Johnson

Ask any political candidate, aspiring or incumbent, at any level of government, what are their top three issues or challenges, and somewhere in the conversation you’ll almost certainly hear the words “job creation” and “growing the economy.”

Notwithstanding all the talk about the importance of economic development, for many, a clear understanding of what it’s all about remains elusive and mysterious. Why is it important to grow the economy? What is the role of government in doing it? What does it take to be successful? Where do we generate leads for new businesses? Are economic incentives really necessary? Why all the secrecy? All of these are good questions.

First, why is it important to grow the economy? The simple answer is that like most living things, our community will not flourish if it fails to grow. In fact, without sustained economic growth, it will eventually die. Good jobs, jobs that pay family-supporting wages with benefits, are the only economic engine that will ultimately translate to higher standards of living, lower rates of poverty, lower unemployment rates, higher educational attainment and higher tax bases to support quality public services like education, police, fire and rescue.

But, what is the role of government in growing the economy? In a capitalistic society, government isn’t in the business of creating jobs – that’s a function of the private sector. But what government can create is an environment that is conducive to new investment and job creation. So, how do we do that? In other words, what does it take for us to be successful?

More than 10 years ago, the Southampton County Board of Supervisors invited representatives from the Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP) to a strategic planning retreat and asked them that very question. This was their response:

In order to be competitive in today’s marketplace, a community must:

1. Have sites that are ready for development – to qualify as ready for development, the community must control the site either by publicly owning it, or by holding an executed and binding option to purchase it. The property should have gone through the public hearing process and already be zoned for business or industrial use, as the case may be. Required infrastructure (roads, water, sewer, power, fiber, natural gas, rail, etc.) should either already be available at the site or be able to be made available in a relatively short time frame. All of the required due diligence (environmental site assessment, wetland delineation, cultural resource survey, traffic impact analysis, geotechnical (subsurface soils) analysis, etc.) should be completed in advance with written reports available. The site should be master-planned to provide a clear understanding of how buildings will fit on the site and where their stormwater will discharge. Failure to demonstrate that your site is ready for development is generally cause for quick elimination. In other words – no pad-ready sites, no prospect visits.

2. Demonstrate a skilled work force – prospective industries want to know what kind of labor pool we have. Are there enough skilled people within a reasonable commute to meet their needs? What skills and abilities do they have? What resources are locally available to help train them? A community must be able to demonstrate the size and skills of its workforce with labor studies prepared in advance of prospect visits. It must form strong partnerships with local school systems and the community college to ensure that it can meet the needs of existing and new businesses and industries.

3. Have access to markets – this is one of those things that either you have it or you don’t. In our case, Franklin/Southampton is blessed to be strategically situated in the middle of the eastern seaboard, just 45 miles away from the world’s greatest natural deep water harbor with ports capable of accommodating the latest generation of cargo ships, and only 33 miles away from America’s Main Street, Interstate 95. With frontage on the CSX and Norfolk Southern Railways, and superb highway access to U.S. Routes 58 and 460, we’re directly connected to nearly two-thirds of the U.S. population. Market access is not an issue here.

4. Demonstrate a pro-business environment – fortunately for us, Virginia has been recognized for the past seven consecutive years as one of the top two states for business in the nation by Forbes, America’s leading business voice. And Virginia is also recognized as a top business state by CNBC, which reaches more than 390 million viewers around the world. Among other things, these prestigious recognitions are based on our low cost of conducting business, our availability of skilled labor, our friendly regulatory environment and our outstanding quality of life.

Once a community checks these four things off their list, they’re not done – in fact, they’re only getting started. But that’s a conversation for another day.

MIKE JOHNSON is a native of and county administrator for Southampton County. His email is mjohnson@southamptoncounty.org