CEDS findings presented to CRC

Published 9:28 am Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The Commonwealth Regional Council (CRC) heard a presentation about the progress of its Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) project Dec. 19

The CRC received a grant in fall of 2017 to develop a regional CEDS program. If the region fits the criteria for an Economic Development District (EDD), it would allow the CRC to receive more grant funding from the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) to help strengthen the regional economy.

“CEDS is a locally-based, regionally-driven economic development planning process and document,” documentation from the CRC cited. “The purpose of a CEDS is to bring together public and private sectors in building a roadmap with a strategy-driven focus to diversify and strengthen the region’s economy.”

The regional CEDS committee is made up of members of local government, business owners, chamber of commerce members, and representatives of higher education institutes.

Todd Gordon, representative of The Berkley Group consulting firm helping the CEDS committee gather its data, spoke during the CRC meeting.

Gordon mapped out aspects of economic development gathered by CEDS members, as well as members’ recommendations of strategies to build current economic opportunities and set the stage for new ones.

He said the input phase included three CEDS committee meetings, and a meeting with area business owners in October.

Gordon said Berkley and CEDS are currently drafting the CEDS document. Once drafted, the CRC and the public would have an opportunity to review it and suggested changes through an open house event, allowing the committee to have a finalized document to adopt by March.

The drafting phase includes determining the area’s demographic, taking an inventory of area infrastructures, and implementing strategies to create economic resilience, or ways to keep the area economy strong or recover in the event of natural disasters or national economic downturn.

Gordon said the Berkley Group also worked with the Virginia Commonwealth University Center for Urban and Regional Analysis, who helped create a comprehensive population and demographic outline of the region, and The Timmons Group, an engineering group, who helped determine the infrastructure inventory of the region, the companies that currently and could in the future, contribute to the region’s economy.

Potential companies and projects include industries related to railroad inland ports, fiber and broadband, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP), and water, electric and industrial or economic site availability.

Gordon said ports in Virginia recently received the authorization to expand its port depth to 55 feet. “Which will allow them to host the largest cargos containers available on the planet,” Gordon said.

Addressing CRC members, he said, “You are within the service area of that port.” He said the area is not Hampton Roads in terms of its expansive rail track, but said, “you have rail connections and road connections that can lead to that port, and so that opens up opportunities.”

The CRC, along with the Buckingham Branch Railroad, the Heartland Regional Industrial Development Authority and Longwood University, are researching the possibility of installing an inland port at the Heartland Industrial Park, located in Keysville.

Gordon said the committee also explored the region’s SWOT, an acronym used to describe the area’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

The strengths, committee members determined, included availability of land, clean air and water, access to higher education, rail, water resource and road infrastructure and close proximity to Richmond and Charlottesville.

Weaknesses included lack of last mile broadband access, challenges in the area’s public schools, lagging workforce participation in relation to other regions, some potential employees with lack of necessary workforce skills or technology skills, lack of export-oriented jobs (jobs that export goods that made in the region. He noted that the region has high volumes of service-oriented jobs, such as jobs in education or retail). He noted some lack of job opportunities that create large volumes of commuters (people who live in the area but travel outside the region to work).

“They’re contributing to the tax base, for example … they’re driving into Chesterfield. They’re commuting to the tax base there rather than contributing to their own,” Gordon said.

In terms of opportunities, Gordon said there could be a market to attract retirees to the area, with a focus on the region’s rural environment and quality of life. He also suggested potential for agricultural development and furniture distribution.

For threats, he noted what he called the “brain drain,” or recent college graduates seeking career opportunities outside of the region with better job prospects.

Other threats included the high volume of top employers that have taxpayer-funded jobs in the region, such as those in education and public administration.

Gordon said members of CEDS, to address these strengths and weaknesses, created three strategic goals. The first goal is strengthening the regional workforce by increasing workforce education and skill training at public schools, as well as creating a workforce development center for adults to provide skills training and offer job recruitment opportunities.

The second goal, broadening the region’s industries, could be accomplished by providing affordable housing in the region, utilizing water resources such as the Sandy River Reservoir, expanding the area’s forestry industry and taking steps to attract new industries such as the inland port, the ACP, order-fulfillment/warehouse industries through e-commerce companies and call centers.

“There’s a big push at the state level for back-office type work,” Gordon said. “Essentially what they’re saying is rather than outsource you call center or order-fulfillment technical support overseas, outsource it to rural Virginia. Establish centers here to fulfill those roles for big companies that may be located far away.”

Gordon also reported strengthening the recreation and tourism aspect of the region, connecting attractions such as trails or breweries to one another.

The last goal, leveraging educational institutions to strengthen the economy, could be accomplished by advocating for increased trade skills programs, such as electrical work and plumbing. Higher education institutions such as Hampden-Sydney College, Southside Virginia Community College and Longwood University could also develop programs that encourage regional entrepreneurial opportunities, or opportunities that keep students in the region.

CRC member and Charlotte Supervisor Nancy Carwile asked about the role of community colleges in strengthening workforce development.

Gordon said Southside Virginia Community College (SVCC) it would be an important component, similar to four-year institutions.

Carwile also asked about different programs related to bringing broadband to Central Virginia.

CRC Executive Director Melody Foster noted that the Virginia Governor’s Office increased the allocation for broadband expansion in the state budget, and said funding from the EDA could potentially be used for matching funds that could help the region apply for the grant.

CRC member and Lunenburg Supervisor Mike Hankins encouraged people to think innovatively about ways to grow the economy.

“Getting people to think out of the box is going to be key because if we keep doing the same thing over and over again, then we’re not going to succeed,” Hankins said.

“This kind of thing costs money, and you know, if you’re going to do it, and do it right, you’re going to have to get out of this mindset of, we want everything to be like it was in 1950,” Carwile said.

“Amen,” Hankins responded.