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Weighing the pros, cons of VGA

Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part story covering the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors’ extended discussion about the Virginia Growth Alliance during the board’s regular December meeting, weighing the benefits of the county leaving or staying in the alliance and also addressing proposed changes to the alliance’s bylaws and Regional Development Agreement.

BY TITUS MOHLER

The Farmville Herald

Farmville 701 District Supervisor and Board Chairman Jim Wilck expressed a clear desire during the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors’ Dec. 10 meeting for the county to exit the Virginia Growth Alliance (VGA) due to lack of benefit from membership in it over the last six years, and he cited a previous inclination of the board to withdraw. His Dec. 10 motion to withdraw failed, but his comments triggered a discussion.

During that discussion, Farmville 801 District Supervisor Pattie Cooper-Jones said to County Administrator Wade Bartlett, “OK, my question is, what can you tell this board that VGA has done for us? What benefits do we have?”

“Over the last two years, (Virginia Economic Development Partnership) VEDP has provided 100 leads to VGA, which then they have spread out,” Bartlett said. “We’ve gotten several. I haven’t counted them all up, and we’re still working on a few right now. Unfortunately, we haven’t landed many.”

“Zero,” Wilck briefly interjected.

“We are in the running for a couple, but a lot of that’s because we don’t have some product,” Bartlett continued. “The three that we’re looking at now that are active, one was an aerospace component company, they make aerospace components for both commercial and the defense industry, but they want an existing 45,000-50,000 square-foot building. We don’t have one.”

Later he added that the county is in the running for a couple of other leads.

“There’s a manufacturing company that makes bottling and packaging machinery; they only need 10,000 square feet,” he said.

The other lead he cited was an eco-friendly company that Prince Edward County Economic Development Director Kate Pickett Eggleston noted, in a Jan. 2 interview, “turns fresh-cut wood into bio-coal, and you can use it to generate energy.”

Bartlett, during the Dec. 10 meeting, said, “They also only need 10,000 square feet. We’re talking with some local owners of buildings that have that space. Those are two that we’re actively working now.

“VGA has gone on some recent trade shows, and they’ve located some processing facilities for multiple agricultural products, to process those, such as sweet potatoes and hemp that they’re going to present to the region, and we’ll look through that,” he continued.

Next Bartlett highlighted the Heartland Industrial Park, located in Keysville.

“It is an authority that owns it, but we’re part of that authority, and if a business goes in there, then, of course, Prince Edward County residents can try to get those jobs,” he said. “There are two sites under contract right now in the Heartland park.”

Bartlett stated that VGA has partnered with the Virginia’s Gateway Region and Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance to form what is called the Virginia’s Manufacturing Region.

“It’s pretty new, but the partnership is to market our region as a whole, and they’ve contracted with consulting firms, and the partnership has been on one marketing mission, just happened in October, and brought back two possible business prospects on this site. So that’s another thing that we can do, and that’s just really started going. They’re asking for some money from GO Virginia, I believe.”

He asked Eggleston if they have received that.

“They received at least one year’s worth of grant money for that, and all of that money is going into paying the consultant, and that consultant is doing the consulting work for all three regions as a whole as the manufacturing region, and that’s at no extra cost to us or the other regions,” she said.

“And by that,” Bartlett said, “it means going to trade shows and presenting marketing materials about our region to various manufacturers.”

Continuing with his presentation, he said, “The Virginia Economic Development Partnership, VEDP, Certified Sites Initiative allows localities to submit economic development sites to be reviewed and analyzed and labeled in various tiers of development. After receiving the tier for each site, VEDP then helps the localities to understand what is needed to bring the site to a higher tier.

“As a member of VGA, we were given priority in this program at the state level,” he continued. Then he asked Eggleston, “And how many of ours have been judged at the tier?”

“Four or five,” she replied. “We have one site that’s a level four that can easily be moved up to a level five.”

“Which is the highest, and those are all in our industrial park,” Bartlett said. “So VGA has helped us with that and with VEDP.

“We’ve had some drone flights over our business park … to take aerial photos that will be soon used in marketing, and that was done by VGA at no cost to us,” he continued.

He also highlighted a prospective Information Technology company that came to the area in March 2019.

“They want to expand, and they’re going to expand in three to five phases,” he said. “… They want to locate in rural areas of Virginia. They chose the first location as South Hill, and we are one of the finalists for the second round of locations.”

Later in his presentation, he cited that “as a member of VGA, VGA has ads in various national economic development and business magazines, including trade and industry development magazines, site selection magazines and business and facilities magazines that costs them $15,000, which then we don’t pay any, and we’re listed in that.”

Additionally, he said, “We’ve been working with both VGA and Mid-Atlantic Broadband (Communities Corporation) to determine and analyze whether Prince Edward meets the criteria to be the location of data-centered sites.”

In conclusion, Bartlett said, “Overall, that’s the highlights of what we have. What I can say is that VEDP has made it clear that they are going to work with alliances, regional alliances, and not with local governments. So, we can withdraw, and that’s the board’s decision, but we will not see these companies come to Prince Edward.”

“Which we’re not seeing now, and we’re paying,” Wilck said. Then, turning to Cooper-Jones, he added, “Now, to answer your question, the answer is nothing. We’ve got nothing.

“We hear speeches,” he continued. “I talked to the chairman of Amelia, who was one of the first to pull out, and his comment was, ‘Jim, we’re tired of paying for them to tour Europe.’ And the situation is, it’s a good thing for Mecklenburg, because they’ve got our money. And every business that goes into another county in the Mecklenburg area — Senator (Frank) Ruff’s area, who’s pushing this — is one that’s not going to go in here and one that we cannot talk to. So basically, we’re funding our competition, and nothing’s gone in here in six years. What the heck do you think is going to go in next year?”

He later added, “Nottoway’s pulled out. I understand more counties are going to pull out. … We pay more than all but a couple of other counties. What we pay into it is based on population. That’s not something we set up. They set that up. That means we would pay more than double what Charlotte County pays, we pay more than double what Cumberland pays and so forth. We pay more than double and get nothing?

“Man, let’s use this money somewhere else,” he continued. “(Farmville Area Community Emergency Services) FACES was in here the other day appealing for some help. I’d rather put the money with FACES. They feed people in the county. They do something. These people do nothing. They haven’t contributed anything, and we’ve sat with them for six years, and we haven’t got anything. There’s a limit.”

Cooper-Jones stated that she had one more question, and she directed it to Hampden District Supervisor Dr. Odessa Pride, who is one of the supervisors who attends meetings relevant to the VGA, giving her strong insight into the alliance’s work.

“Dr. Pride, you attend these meetings,” Cooper-Jones said. “Is there anything that you see that this thing is going to benefit Prince Edward County?”

“Based on what was brought up at the last meeting, I see we are close to being one of the selected areas,” Pride said. “I’ve seen a lot of positive things within the last six months, and I was pretty well impressed. I listened to what Mr. Wilck said. He makes some excellent points, and I remember the way we voted before, but I’ve seen progress in the last six months. But strong possibilities.”

“But no businesses came,” Wilck said.

Pride responded, “Yes with a particular business. There’s not a lot we can say about it now, because it’s something they are working on, but I’ve seen some growth.”

After a brief pause, Wilck called for a motion, and Prospect District Supervisor J. David Emert, who had reopened the discussion after Wilck’s failed motion, made a motion to adopt a resolution to withdraw from the VGA.

Wilck seconded this and called for all votes in favor of the resolution. Only he and Emert raised their hands.

“All those in favor of staying in and paying another $26,000?” Wilck asked, referencing a rough estimate of the county’s annual membership fee to be in the VGA. The other six supervisors raised their hands, prompting him to say, “That carries.”

As Bartlett started into the next agenda item, Buffalo District Supervisor Llew Gilliam Jr. asked if there was another option, another group like the VGA that could bring business into the county.

Wilck answered, “The (Commonwealth Regional Council) CRC, which we also are paying into, and they have been active, and they have done things that you can see and you can touch.”

Wilck indicated that the CRC is a group that helps with economic development, so why have the VGA?

Bartlett said, “I beg to differ. The CRC does not do economic development. They did about 12 years ago. They voted, the CRC board, to get out of economic development about 10 years ago. They used to have an economic developer position, and they unfunded that position, and so they do not do economic development.”

Emert, who noted that he is on the CRC board, argued that “they do not have an economic develop(er), per se, but everything that they do works for the county to better them. If that’s what you’re asking, Llew, absolutely.”

Gilliam said, “Alright, here we’re paying them money to bring business in. We’ve done it for years, just like what the chairman said. What’s wrong with a letter to them: ‘Look, we’re going to give you one more turn at bat. If we don’t see any results, we’re out. We want to see some results.’”

“But we’ve been going through six years of that with no results,” Wilck said.

“Has a letter ever been sent to them?” Gilliam asked.

It was agreed that a letter had been sent, but Bartlett indicated the letter was several months late to meet the cut-off for withdrawal during the given time period.

Farmville 101 District Supervisor Gene A. Southall said, “I’ve got one question. These other counties that are dropping out, would that increase our chance?”

“Lessen the competition …,” Bartlett said.

“We’re not being selected because we don’t have what’s needed,” Wilck said.

The county attorney had noted that the board still needed to vote to authorize a Jan. 14, 2020 public hearing addressing proposed changes to the VGA’s bylaws and the Transtech Alliance Regional Development Agreement. The vote to authorize was unanimous.