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Virginia prosperity continues uneven shift

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It’s more historic fact than breaking news, that a symbolic line along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains divides Virginia’s prosperity.

From the state’s origins, Eastern Virginia has dominated in economic and political spheres. Favorable transportation routes along deep rivers flowing toward the Chesapeake Bay begat trade, population growth — and clout.

Now comes a new report from Old Dominion University economists which reiterates this historical geography, namely that the state’s population and economic activity continue to shift eastward and become more urban-based.

In the process, according to ODU’s 7th annual annual State of the Commonwealth Report, issued late last month, some of Virginia’s rural communities and smaller metropolitan areas are being stranded.

The document emerged just weeks before Virginia’s new governor takes office and the state’s General Assembly convenes. How the newly elected GOP regime’s policies in the Executive Mansion and the state Capitol will evolve remains to be seen.

The report frames a stark question for Virginia’s decision makers: Can the state spur economic growth outside the so-called urban crescent of northern Virginia, Richmond and Hampton Roads?

That’s a vital issue for Western Virginia, which has lost legislative representation, prompted by population loss and economic stagnation in the census-driven, court-decreed resdistricting process.

The ODU report offers numbers indicating than while Virginia’s population has grown faster than the national average during the past two decades, that upward trend has been disproportionate.

“Among Virginia’s metropolitan areas, population growth varied significantly from a 0.4 percent contraction in Kingsport-Bristol to an 11.4 percent increase in the Washington, D.C. metro area,” it says.

By comparison, Roanoke’s population grew 1.7 percent from 2000-2020; the Blacksburg-Christiansburg area grew 2.5 percent.

The report offers another metric to reinforce its thesis: “Personal income measures the income that residents of a geographic area receive from paychecks, employer-provided benefits such as insurance, business ownership, rental properties, Social Security and other public benefits, interest and dividends.”

U.S. aggregate personal income rose 2 percent from 2000-2020. Virginia’s grew 1,5 percent. Blacksburg-Christiansburg’s 1.7 percent, Roanoke’s 1.2 percent.

“As the commonwealth lagged the nation, this performance was nothing to write home about,” according to the ODU economists.

“More troubling,” the report warns, “is the lack of personal income per capital growth among some of the smaller metropolitan areas in the commonwealth. Those metros are growing slower in terms of population and income — not a winning combination in the long run.”

Additional data: Between 2010 and 2020, Virginia’s labor force grew slightly faster than the nation’s, paced by the I-95 and I-64 Eastern Virginia municipalities of Richmond and the Virginia D.C. metro area.

“However, three metro areas — Blacksburg, Staunton and Roanoke — grew slower than the state. Further, two metros, Lynchburg and Kingsport-Bristol, saw their labor forces contract,” the ODU report states.

Meanwhile, Virginias’ rural areas are economically stagnant or losing ground, according to ODU, due to expansion of service industries, along with the decline of agriculture (tobacco) and mining (coal) as dependable staples for rural prosperity.

“The increasing concentration of population and economic activity in the urban crescent and, in particular, Norther Virginias and Richmond, is creating ‘Two Virginias,’” is the ODU report’s assertion.

Along with snippets of numbers and plentiful graphs reflecting larger trends, the report offers recommendations for Virginia’s decision-makers to avoid statewide disparities:

Expand broadband service and access

Modernize Virginia’s “antiquated’ tax system on state and local levels

Avoid increasing regulatory burdens on businesses

Invest in public K-12 education and public universities

Build an apprentice system to train skilled trades

Fund infrastructure improvements

Practice regional collaboration

“Virginia can act to improve regional outcomes if it chooses to do so,” ODU’s experts say.

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