Southwest Virginia leaders partner for economic forum


WISE COUNTY, Va. - Southwest Virginia is focusing on crucial partnerships to build a diverse economy necessary to supplement coal and a loss of industry. Community leaders say the result of private investment, higher education, and state resources will be higher-paying jobs in the area. In Wise Wednesday, leaders joined for a regional economic forum on how to accomplish job growth.. If population trends continue, southwest Virginia could see as many as 1,000 people per year moving out of the region over the next decade. That is according to the Virginia Economic Development Partnership's new CEO Stephen Moret. "The Coalfield region faces all the challenges of rural America. On top of that, the region has had the challenges of losses of jobs in the coalfields and natural gas extraction as well," Moret said. Moret said reversing the trend relies on the Commonwealth's ability to improve the business climate. "We're particularly uncompetitive on capital-intensive projects like the ones we want to attract in rural Virginia," Moret said. "We are almost the highest tax state in America for those types of new investments. We've got to address that issue." Legislators say they are on board, but want to be sure to clear any unintended consequences. "For rural communities, this would increase their tax base and keep from having so much reliance on the state," Delegate Terry Kilgore said. Kilgore represents Virginia's first district of Lee, Scott, Wise, and the City of Norton. Another challenge for southwest Virginia is workforce development and making sure those looking for jobs are prepared for incoming businesses. "The community college system and other entities can come together and help us to bridge that workforce gap and get people trained to do the jobs that are here and the jobs that are coming. So that's a big deal for us to be able to go out and recruit new businesses to come that they need to know that the workforce is there," Delegate Israel O'Quinn said. O'Quinn's fifth district spans Grayson, Smyth, Washington, Bristol, and Galax. The Commonwealth recently created the Go Virginia initiative to promote economic growth and bring higher-paying jobs to every region. Food City CEO Steve Smith sits on the Go Virginia state board, which is responsible for approving proposed projects. News 5 asked Smith about the timeline of the projects. "Going into this winter, the September - December time frames that the Go Virginia State Board will entertain projects from the different regions," Smith said Regional and community leaders also said a key to strong economic success begins with sending out a qualified and prepared workforce. "We're looking at our programs to see how we can enhance the economy and what we can do to partner to attract businesses to southwest Virginia and computer science/software engineering is a good example of that," UVa.-Wise Chancellor Donna Henry said. The urgency for getting these partnerships producing quality work is already here, but leaders say it may take the next couple of years to see significant changes.

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