Virginia Tech’s Center for Economic and Community Engagement held regional meetings in Roanoke, Lynchburg, and the New River Valley to present their 2021 GO Virginia Region 2 Growth and Diversification Plan and receive feedback from leaders in the area.
Staff began work on the plan in April 2021, reviewing regional data and updating GO Virginia Region 2 industry clusters, which include Food and Beverage Manufacturing; Advanced Manufacturing; Life Sciences; and Emerging Technology and IT.
“We also conducted interviews with economic development organizations, planning district commissions, and workforce development organizations to get a better understanding of what their priorities are for the coming years. We wanted to build their feedback and experiences into this GO Virginia plan,” said senior economic development specialist Sarah Lyon-Hill.
As a result of the information they gathered, staff developed four strategic areas, Innovation Cluster Scale-Up; Entrepreneurship and Business Development; Talent Development, Attraction and Retention; and Collaborative Sites and Infrastructure Development. They then held two working group sessions to refine each strategic area.
“During these regional meetings, we want to hear as much feedback as possible to make sure this plan aligns as well as it can with what people are doing so we can have more great projects in the region,” said Lyon-Hill. “Since the 2017 Growth and Diversification plan, our region has experienced a lot of changes. We have a labor force shortage due to both an aging population and slow population growth. With this plan, we need to think about what strategies will help us make progress in our region and increase investment in higher than median wage jobs.”
“We’re grateful for the opportunities we’ve had so far with GO Virginia,” said Jamie Glass, director of Economic Development at the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance. “Our most recent grant will help extend natural gas to the Dearing Ford Industrial Park in the town of Altavista. Since 2015, we have lost 27 projects because we did not have gas access. So that grant is huge for us and we’re excited for that opportunity.”
The strategic area, Collaborative Sites and Infrastructure Development, aims to focus on broadband access along with site development.
“GO Virginia should play a role in broadband initiatives, but it shouldn’t be a duplicate role. The program could partner with other organizations to support broadband implementation throughout the region,” said economic development specialist Ashley Posthumus.
Gary Christie, executive director of the Central Virginia Planning District Commission, said broadband continues to be a priority for their region. Counties in the Lynchburg area have a long way to go before they reach 100 percent service, he said.
“Counties are not broadband experts a lot of the time. They’re given a lot of funds but may not know how to deploy them. I think some planning and project management could be extremely helpful,” said Glass.
“The targeted clusters we focus on at Onward NRV are very similar to the target industry clusters this GO Virginia plan is focused on,” said Katie Boswell, director of marketing at Onward NRV. “Our targeted clusters include Advanced Manufacturing; Food Processing and Agribusiness; Information Technology; and Unmanned Systems. At Onward NRV, we strive to establish relationships between businesses that are already here to grow those clusters and make them stronger.”
“Our focus is putting people into short term training for in-demand occupations including advanced manufacturing, information technology, agribusiness, construction and skill trades, healthcare, logistics, transportation, warehousing, public safety, and utilities,” said Marty Holliday, executive director of the New River/Mount Rogers Workforce Investment Area. “In general, we identify the skills needed by industries and focus on helping individuals build those skills,” she said.
Jeremy Holmes, executive director of the Roanoke Valley-Alleghany Regional Commission, said transportation is an issue in the region. “Qualified employees simply couldn’t reach certain employers because they were outside of the footprint of our existing public transportation system,” he said.
“One of the exciting things GO Virginia highlights here is autonomous systems. We can be a leader in this industry and support our citizens and communities. We don’t have to think about transit as just forty-foot buses that run once an hour every hour,” Holmes said.
“In workforce development, people talk about skills mismatch, but there’s also location mismatch. How do we get workers from their homes to the workplace? That’s a huge issue to keep in mind moving forward,” said Lyon-Hill.
Housing is also an issue in the region, said Eddie Amos, vice-chair of the Region 2 Council. “Now that we’ve started to rehire a lot of people, we’ve run into a shortage of housing, especially in the New River Valley and parts of Roanoke. We’ve had several candidates turn us down because they can’t find affordable housing.”
Morgan Romeo, executive director of the Western Virginia Workforce Board mentioned that students don’t just lack interest in obtaining credentials; they also lack awareness of the opportunities in the area. “Some of our CTE programs in the high schools have made tremendous efforts, but there’s still a huge gap and there’s more that we can do with business visits, work-based learning, and career awareness,” she said.
“Overall, the plan did a great job of capitalizing on our region’s strengths, recognizing our weaknesses, and highlighting opportunities for us to grow and succeed,” Romeo said.
During the GO Virginia Council Meeting on October 27th, the Growth and Diversification Plan will be presented to the council and reviewed, and on October 30th, the plan will be submitted to the state.