State OKs regional economic development plan

The Shenandoah Valley-Herald

HARRISONBURG – A five-year plan for economic growth in the Valley focuses on raising and retaining employment in five growing industries.

On Sept. 13, the 24-member GO Virginia State Board approved an Economic Growth and Diversification Plan prepared by the program’s Region 8 Council.

The council consists of 28 business and industry leaders in the 8th Region, which covers the Valley from Lexington to Winchester.

GO Virginia, also known as the Virginia Initiative for Growth and Opportunity in Each Region, was created in 2015 to encourage communities in nine regions of the state to work together to spur economic growth. It operates under the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development.

The Region 8 plan calls for increased workforce recruitment and training in five industry sectors that are expected to grow in the Valley during the next five years.

The sectors include finance and business services, health care, information technology and communications, light manufacturing and transportation and logistics.

Those sectors employed more than 103,000 workers in the Valley in 2016, the plan said. The health care and IT industries are expected to grow in the Valley by 7 percent and 18 percent, respectively, by 2021, the plan said.

Neither a cost estimate for enacting the plan nor details of how to boost recruitment and training has been confirmed yet, Brandon Davis, executive director of the Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Commission, said on Sept. 14.

“The premise is that economies are regional in nature,” he said. “It makes sense for communities in those regions to work together. The private sector doesn’t care about physical jurisdictions. It cares about target markets.”

The regional commission is one of the Region 8 Council’s partners, he said. The Central Shenandoah Planning District Commission in Staunton and the Harrisonburg-based Shenandoah Valley Workforce Development Board are also partners.

Boosting Education
Another priority is establishing partnerships with community colleges, universities and public school systems to “change the culture” concerning careers in industry, the plan said.

“We have a really vibrant manufacturing sector, but unless you’re involved in it, it’s hard to know what goes on behind those walls,” Davis said. “When students think of manufacturing, they probably have an imagination of what the process looked like 50 years ago.”

James Madison University President Jon Alger and Shenandoah University President Tracy Fitzsimmons are Region 8 Council members.

In addition to training and educating new workers, the plan calls for increased on-the-job training for incumbent workers to help them earn promotions and fill middle-skill jobs within their companies, the plan said.

Another goal is the creation of more regional tourist destinations. Beyond that, Davis said, the plan does not focus on agriculture or tourism, despite their being two of the region’s largest economic drivers.

“It’s hard to ignore those,” he said. “But this initiative, both in the private sector and on the state level, really focuses on those high-paying jobs.”

Boosting Business
The GO Virginia State Board will start reviewing proposals from representatives of each region on how to enact their plans’ goals in October, according to Devon Anders, owner of The Interchange Group, Inc. outside Harrisonburg and a member of the Region 8 Council.

Each proposal will have to meet multiple requirements to receive an as-yet undetermined amount of public funding, Anders said.

“The mandate is you have to be bringing in $44,000 [per year] level jobs,” he said. “And it can’t be just Harrisonburg creating jobs. It has to be with Rockingham County or another municipality.”

The Interchange Group stores and transports goods and leases office space to eight businesses, including River Run Cabinetry and Rosetta Stone.

Anders, 51, hopes stronger partnerships with community colleges can lead to an expansion of his company’s operations and its 125-member workforce in the next few years.

“[Commercial drivers license] drivers are challenging to come by,” he said. “[Blue Ridge Community College] has a program, but getting them into it, getting them trained, getting them over the insurance requirement is hard.”

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