ST. PAUL — Amazon officials made their first visit to far Southwest Virginia this week to give local legislators and economic development leaders the chance to pitch the region’s assets so it can have a stake in the company’s second headquarters that will open in Northern Virginia.
The state hopes the benefits of the Amazon project will expand across Virginia, and those in the economically distressed region of far southwest want to make sure they reap the benefits.
Amazon officials spent Sunday and Monday visiting Bristol, Abingdon and St. Paul, where local leaders showed off the region’s amenities, including restaurants and outdoor recreation. At a roundtable in St. Paul, educational leaders and lawmakers emphasized a desire to build a bridge between prospering Northern Virginia and Southwest Virginia to try to shrink the wide economic divide between the two regions.
“The challenge is in Northern Virginia, these companies are competing for talent,” said Gov. Ralph Northam, who oversaw the roundtable. “If you go to the Eastern Shore, where I’m from, or here in the Southwest, we have talented people that are competing for jobs. We don’t have the jobs in these areas. So that’s really what we need to focus on and figure out how to provide jobs for these talented people.”
Virginia’s pitch as to why Amazon should come to Northern Virginia hinged on the strength of that region’s intellectual workforce and a promise to provide the highly educated workers it needs in the future.
State money is flowing through a new technology talent pipeline to provide degrees in high-tech fields at universities and colleges across Virginia. The General Assembly included $16.6 million in the budget to kick off a fund to make grants to college and universities that sign agreements with the state that commit them to producing new degrees in computer science and related fields.
Virginia Tech plans to produce up to 35,000 undergraduate and graduate degrees in high-tech fields over the next 20 years. The school also will build its new $1 billion Innovation Campus in Alexandria’s Potomac Yard.
So while the cost of doing business in a brain hub like the Washington, D.C., area is higher, the region offers the internet retailer a large pool of talented employees.
Virginia promised up to $750 million in cash incentives if the company creates 37,850 high-paying jobs at the new headquarters in Arlington. The blockbuster economic development deal drew criticism from some opponents in the legislature who felt like their regions had been left out. However, members of the Southwest Virginia delegation in the room Monday expressed gratitude for Amazon coming to Virginia because it could benefit their region.
“We’re supportive of Amazon, and we’re supportive of what it does for the commonwealth,” Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott, said.
Southwest Virginia doesn’t necessarily want to send all of its educated young people to Northern Virginia, though.
“We don’t want this to be a one-way pipeline,” Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington, said.
Local legislators often tout how the students in the rural mountainous counties perform at the top in the math, science and reading Standards of Learning. They’re taking home top prizes in robotics and forensics competitions.
“But we lose a lot of these kids,” Kilgore said. “They go to Virginia Tech or UVa, and we never get them back.”
The jobs these college graduates are seeking don’t exist in Southwest Virginia, and the ones that do don’t pay the salaries they can get in larger cities. This contributes to the region’s ongoing problem of declining population.
“Many want to stay in this region and take advantage of amenities,” said Donna Henry, chancellor of the University of Virginia’s College at Wise.
Henry said the school recently surveyed its alumni with technology degrees who left the region for employment, and 80% of them said they would move back to the region if there were jobs available.
Roundtable attendees envisioned more remote work opportunities, the region offering Amazon energy resources, and the company partnering with small businesses in the region.
“Once you have a macro strategy where you attract Amazon, you have a micro strategy where Amazon is working to create small businesses, and you can create an ecosystem that is self-perpetuating,” said Dario Marquez, co-founder of Abingdon-based Wize Solutions, an IT firm that connects big-city firms to qualified workers in rural areas. Marquez moved two years ago to Southwest Virginia from Northern Virginia.
The region is still working to improve in various areas that have been hindrances to economic development. A lack of broadband has been one. Evan Feinman, Northam’s chief broadband adviser, said the commonwealth is on track to have universal broadband in eight and a half years.
Southwest Virginia is trying to position itself as an attractive region to do business. Land is cheap and taxes are low. Companies can receive tax breaks if they locate to certain economically distressed areas, thanks to a recent law that Del. Will Morefield, R-Tazewell, got passed.
“We have to prove and bust through paradigms that it can’t be done here,” Marquez said.
A new marketing initiative, InvestSWVA, recently launched with the goal of bringing together state and local leaders, economic development agencies and corporate stakeholders to attract new jobs to the region. One of its first efforts includes partnering with the Northern Virginia Technology Council, a trade association for the technology community in Northern Virginia, to market remote employment opportunities in Southwest Virginia.
Several people at the roundtable said the region is a valuable resource, but negative perceptions bedevil it.
“We have the opportunity here, we have the infrastructure, whether it be human capital or workforce development, broadband,” said Beth Rhinehart, the president and CEO of the Bristol Chamber of Commerce.