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Editorial: Who we'd like to see on the regional 'Go Virginia' board

Editorial: Who we'd like to see on the regional 'Go Virginia' board

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Today, we run a “help wanted” ad. Not over in the classifieds, but here.

It’s not one we’ve been asked to run, but we believe democracy requires full participation from all sectors of society, so here goes.

A state board is looking for 20 to 25 people to serve on a regional economic development council. We have some thoughts on who those people should be — or, more accurately, what types of people they should be. Perhaps by calling attention to this we’ll attract the interest of someone who ought to be on this council but otherwise wouldn’t know about it.

First, the background: Virginia’s economic growth is pretty anemic, just 34th in the nation. In this part of the state, we’ve been accustomed to slow job growth for a long time. The difference now is that the fast-growth economies in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads have stalled, too — due mostly to a slowdown in federal spending.

Here’s a turn-around: By some measures, the job growth in the Roanoke and New River valleys is now faster than other parts of the state. Statistically speaking, we’ve recovered all the jobs we lost during the recession, and then gained some. Hampton Roads hasn’t. New River has actually seen faster job growth, on a percentage basis, than Northern Virginia. We need to readjust our perceptions to match the new realities.

We also need more economic growth.

Last year, a coalition of business interests pushed the General Assembly to pass, and the governor, to sign a bill creating a statewide board — this one endowed with $39 million to hand out for economic development projects. Not for specific companies, but for creating the infrastructure that would attract them. The idea was that this would be a board run by business leaders — on the theory that they know best. They further carved the state up into different regions, with each region having its own council to recommend projects in their areas.

This whole endeavor was called “Go Virginia” and some of it is based on sound economics. There is no single state economy; instead there’s a collection of very disparate regional economies.

However, one of the stated goals was that these regional councils would force warring localities to work together. The initiative for “Go Virginia” came out of Hampton Roads — led by former Landmark Communications executive John “Dubby” Wynne — and that aspect of it always seemed like a Hampton Roads problem in search of a statewide solution. Perhaps the localities there don’t cooperate; the ones in this part of the state actually do, in some pretty historic ways, actually.

Regular readers of these columns know that our primary interest is economic growth. However, we’ve also been skeptical of Go Virginia. Do we really need yet another layer of bureaucracy? Do we really need another board coming up with yet another strategy? We have shelves full of strategies already. Just a few weeks ago, the Roanoke Regional Partnership unveiled an update of its five-year plan. Let’s not re-invent yet another wheel.

That said, the state board is set up, and it’s now in the process of recruiting members for its regional council for our region — which stretches from Giles and Pulaski counties in the west to Appomattox County, from Franklin County up to Alleghany County. So let’s make this work.

There’s now an effort underway to recruit up 20-to-25 members for this regional council. Applications are due by Friday at 3 p.m. at this web address: surveymonkey.com/r/QBNWL2H.

When the state board was announced last summer, we expressed our disappointment in its composition. All the statewide members are fine people, we’re sure, but the board was very much dominated by representatives from old-line industries, and not much representation from the “new economy,” particularly the state’s technology sector. For a board charged with helping grow the economy, its membership seemed surprisingly retro.

Let’s hope our new regional council can be more forward-looking.

We’re not going to suggest specific names here. Instead, we offer up some questions — and answers — about the type of people who ought to be on this regional council.

n Does the council have members who understand just how the economy is changing? That really needs to be the main criteria. We can all name the big corporate names in the region. But that’s not really where the jobs of the future are going to come from. We’d like to see council members who have an intimate understanding of the companies springing up in, say, the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center. It’s fine to know the old-line business leaders dining at the Shenandoah Club, but we also need council members who know what’s happening at the Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council and what’s happening at the Grandin Co-Lab and the various business incubators around the region. We need diversity, in all its forms.

n Do the council members have a working knowledge of the growing gap between the skills our workers have — and the skills they’re going to need to fill the jobs being created? We’d like to see members who have read, for instance, the recent Old Dominion University report on the state’s economy which delves into these issues. Or the 2015 report by the state community college system on the state’s workforce which does the same. Or, better yet, both.

n Do the council members have a working knowledge of the demographic forces re-shaping our region? Demography, they say, is destiny. Demography also drives the economy. Simply having a basic understanding of whether a locality’s population is growing or shrinking isn’t enough. Council members really ought to understand how and why it’s moving in the direction it is.

We have some localities that are gaining population — but only because older people are moving in. In many of our localities, deaths exceed births. That’s not a good economic combination. On the other hand, Roanoke has reversed demographic trends and is now attracting young adults.

We need council members with a sophisticated understanding of why all that’s happening — and what’s driving it, economically, and what could drive it even more in the right direction.

This is not a time for the “same old same old.” We don’t necessarily need big names — we need the right names, even if we haven’t heard of them before.

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