Franklin, Southampton invited to join Virginia in growth

Published 4:12 pm Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Franklin Mayor Raystine Johnson-Ashburn talks about the expansion of the economy in the past year at the second annual Partners in Progress. The mayor cited Providence Agriculture and Highground Services, which will retain a total of 77 jobs and create an investment of $2 million. -- Cain Madden | Tidewater News

Franklin Mayor Raystine Johnson-Ashburn talks about the expansion of the economy in the past year at the second annual Partners in Progress. The mayor cited Providence Agriculture and Highground Services, which will retain a total of 77 jobs and create an investment of $2 million. — Cain Madden | Tidewater News

At the Partners in Progress event, Franklin Southampton Economic Development Inc. Board Chair E. Warren Beale Jr. made sure to reach out to the community to acknowledge the important role of George Davis, who died two weeks ago.

“We will miss him, but also remember all that he did for us,” Beale said of the former Boykins representative on the Southampton Board of Supervisors. Beale also served as the chair of the Franklin-Southampton Economic Development Commission.

“He was visionary for our combined communities.”

During her turn at the podium at the second annual event, Franklin Mayor Raystine Johnson-Ashburn reminded the audience of the progress that had been made in the past year. She said they were able to announce a private project located in the city’s Pretlow Industrial Park: Providence Agriculture. It brings an investment of $1.5 investment to the community and retains 15 jobs.

Johnson-Ashburn was also pleased to be able to retain Highground Services Inc. in downtown Franklin. The Franklin Business Incubator graduate will renovate the old power plant on Mechanic Street, and 64 jobs will remain local.

“These may be small steps, but they are steps in the right direction,” she said. “As we continue to grow and develop our economy, the Business Incubator continues to be a safe harbor. We are serious about growing our economy and look forward to being close partners with Southampton County.

“We are proud of that relationship.”

Supervisors Chairman Dallas O. Jones added that it was a pleasure to be partners with Franklin, and both mentioned the value of Amanda Jarratt, FSEDI’s president and CEO.

“Mr. [Maurice A.] Jones, this is your day, not mine,” he said. “I’m just here to welcome you.”

Maurice Jones, the secretary of Commerce and Trade for the Commonwealth of Virginia, was the keynote speaker, back in Franklin for the second time this year. He had also spoke at the Community Leadership Breakfast put on by the Franklin Department of Parks and Recreation Sportsman’s Society and Franklin Tri-County Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc.

As of last week, Virginia had 3.8 million jobs, which Jones said was higher than the pre-recession peak number by about 100,000.

“In other words, Virginia has more jobs than at anytime in the history of the commonwealth,” Jones said. “Not bad, huh? And we are continuing to get better.”

The secretary said that depending on who is driving, Franklin is located 35-50 minutes from the deepest port on the East Coast. Today, Jones said, the Port of Virginia is ready to accept the large ships that will soon be traveling through the Panama Canal, while ports like those at New York City are scrambling to get ready.

“It will be bringing goods, services and jobs,” he said, “and we are already ready.”

In the 17 months that Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who appointed Jones, has been at the wheel, 400 economic development deals have been reached across the state. That will result in $6.6 billion dollars being invested in the commonwealth.

“That is more investment in a 17-month period that the previous two governors combined,” Jones said. “That is a factor of an incredibly good governor, but it’s also a factor of now is our time.

“Now is the time of those of us who are here in Virginia to seize the opportunities that are in front of us. It won’t last forever.”

Communities have to make sure they take advantage of this moment, and Jones wanted Franklin and Southampton County to accept the invitation to join the other localities in the state that will be spring-boarded forward.

There are five key areas to prepare the community for the jobs that will be coming.

The first is infrastructure. Jones said if you want to attract a business, you have to already have the site ready for them, and a community also has to have the homes ready. Homes that the workforce can afford.

The second key is focusing on the sectors of the economy where a community has a strategic advantage. Being near the port, Route 58 and having a relatively lower cost workforce than other areas, all make Franklin ideal for attracting manufacturing and advanced manufacturing.

“How aggressively are you telling that story to places that are looking to expand?”

Jones said he was glad that Franklin had invited students from Southampton High School, Franklin High School and Southampton Academy, as entrepreneurship was his third key. Communities should focus on providing incentives to people who take risks, providing money for loans and using the Incubator to partner with and mentor them.

“Everyone of these students could very well be the next Bill Gates, Facebook inventor or you name it,” he said. “I can’t keep up with all of the technology these days, but my 12-year-old daughter teaches me.”

The fourth key is the climate — not weather — but the attitude in the community, as it’s not just about taxes, incentives or rebates.

“You don’t have to put the biggest pile of money on the table,” Jones said. “What businesses have to see is that you want them. That you have a climate that will enable them to grow and navigate every problem.”

The last area is education. He wanted to make sure Franklin and Southampton leaders were doing all they could to make sure that the talent in the area is best prepared for the workforce, be it soft or hard skills. Jones said not to discourage the young people from attending a four-year university if that’s what they want, but 55 to 65 percent of the jobs coming will only require a high school education or post-secondary certificate.

“If [the university experience] is the path for you, then that is the path you should take,” Jones said. “However, there are other, just as viable, just as worthy and, in some cases, arguably cheaper routes to that path.”

Electricians, welders, people who can code, health care technicians, and ‘You name it’ Jones said are the folks who can get jobs in the new economy. Jobs that will catapult a person to the middle class and beyond.

“Make sure we are preparing the totality of the workforce, which means BA, MA and PHD — we need all of that,” he said. “But we also need people with an American Welding Society certificate.

“Talent will be the game-changer.”

After explaining it, Jones said that as a community you had to put your money where your mouth is. Franklin and Southampton County would have to make the investments to take part in this moment of anticipated growth.

He told a story of his eighth-grade science teacher who stuck with him. The teacher was there for football games, basketball games, and she always brought Bubble Yum. She was also there for the debate team, and after one she introduced him to a Virginia senator.

They wanted Jones to think about being a page in the senate.

“My home town was about 1,200 people. We farmed, we worked in the mill — the only pages I knew were in books,” he said. “The next thing I knew, I was in Richmond working for General Assembly members. It put me on a different path.”

That teacher wasn’t done with him, though. Before a football game during senior year, she asked him if he’d applied to college.

“No ma’am, but I’m going to,” Jones said he told her. She replied, “‘You are right. You are going to apply today.’”

They applied to three colleges. Ultimately, he ended up at Hampden-Sydney College on a full ride scholarship. The eighth grade teacher had called the school asking them to give him a chance.

“That’s really what this moment is about, an invitation to take a chance,” Jones said. “I hope you do it.”

Franklin High School senior Shamar Ballard said he didn’t realize that Virginia was doing a better job of attracting jobs than bordering states. The psychology major will attend Virginia Commonwealth University in the fall. He said he would be back one day, and further, he’d be on the volunteer list for helping the place improve.

“We are on the rise,” Ballard said of Franklin. “If we continue to take action, this will be a better place to live in the future.”