Imagine Farmville —Future of county economy
This week the Imagine Farmville series looks into the possible future of economic development and the initiatives that Prince Edward County is currently taking to vitalize existing businesses and recruit new industries.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused uncertainty for business operations and employees. Those who work in the retail, construction, service or creative industries have had to quickly adapt to shifting protocols to keep people at a safe distance and slow the spread of illness.
Millions in the U.S. have been unemployed. Residents in Prince Edward and Farmville are no exception to recent unemployment.
As Prince Edward County and businesses in the region combat immediate challenges and uncertainties, their vision for the future remains consistent: keep businesses viable, keep people employed and seek out industries that could thrive in the county.
Bringing in new business has been a longstanding point of discussion in the county. Last summer, a resident of Farmville started a petition for an area ALDI grocery store on Change. org. The petition generated more than 2,900 signatures.
New business has come to the area within the year. At the end of 2018, YakAttack, a leading manufacturer of kayak fishing supplies, opened in Prince Edward County at the STEPS Centre on Industrial Park Road.
The opening of the manufacturing plant would lead to 34 new jobs. During the coronavirus pandemic, YakAttack employees used their supplies and equipment to build powered air-purifying respirator (PAPR) shields for healthcare workers in the region.
Residents recently expressed excitement and discussion ensued on social media when a drive-thru Starbucks was announced on May 4 to open on South Main Street in the fall.
While some businesses are developing or continuing operation, the challenges businesses face by limiting in-person interaction has damaged businesses, causing their futures to be uncertain. Some have had to make difficult decisions to reduce staff or close for good.
Ruby Tuesday, which employed 50 people, permanently closed in April. Of the 50 employees 42 are residents of the Farmville region.
In another past report, YakAttack has reported reducing staff based on slowing of business due to the coronavirus.
According to data from the Virginia Employment Commission (VEC), 128 residents in Prince Edward filed initial unemployment claims during the week of May 2. The highest rate of claims occurred the week of March 28, where 255 residents filed initial unemployment claims. Since the pandemic, more than 1,000 Prince Edward workers have filed for unemployment.
During a time where the economy and peoples’ livelihoods are shifting at a breakneck pace, individuals and organizations seek to provide solutions and reassurance that there is hope to be had. Yet uncertainty and fear of job shortages remain a reality.
‘IT’S BEEN QUIET’
Chris Senger, the former general manager of RubyTuesday, has been unemployed for three weeks. He has kept in touch with most of his team, most of the full-time staff who worked at Ruby Tuesday.
For many of the employees he knows who make minimum wage, he said the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) Act has made an impact on residents. For those who have received a stimulus check or is receiving unemployment, he said some are earning more than they had working full time.
Many of his team members, he said, may not start looking for a job until the end of the summer. But for him and many of the staff members he keeps in contact with, the future may be bleak.
Senger said in a Tuesday interview that the lack of dine-in opportunities with restaurants could shift how restaurants operate long-term. He said there were initially 50 people who worked at Ruby Tuesday. If he were to open a Ruby Tuesday now, he said he may only hire 30 people.
“[Restaurants] aren’t going to hire the staff they needed three months ago,” Senger said.
As more people become unemployed and fewer positions are becoming available, he said the job market is becoming increasingly competitive.
He said he has applied for multiple jobs within a 90-mile radius: which includes Richmond, Lynchburg and Charlottesville. He has had 14 years of experience in the restaurant industry with 10 of those years being in management. He said he hasn’t received a callback or interview. He said even applying for positions he would have been overqualified for have turned up empty.
Senger lives with his wife, has a child and has another child on the way. He said he will have to consider large lifestyle changes rather quickly, including potentially selling a vehicle or looking at different housing.
“I’m one of millions in that same predicament,” Senger said.
He said outside of the initial announcements made by the Town of Farmville and Prince Edward County regarding the coronavirus, he has not seen many initiatives to support businesses or people in the community who may be unemployed or struggling.
While he said he may be wrong, he expressed concern that he “hasn’t seen a lot of comradery” among county leaders or specific pushes to help underserved populations or businesses in the area.
“It’s been quiet,” he said.
PROVIDING A WAY
But that may not be the case for long.
This week, the county announced the purchase of 280 acres of land off Persimmon Tree Fork Road for a data center site at a cost of $1.5 million.
“I am very excited about this new endeavor and look forward to discussing it with people in our community,” Brad Watson, chair of the Prince Edward IDA and managing director of investments at Davenport, said in a statement Tuesday about the data center. “Our new initiative surely won’t solve all our problems, but it is a big step in the right direction. If executed properly, I think it will benefit everyone in the area.”
Kate Pickett, director of economic develop with Prince Edward County, said the county’s vision has been to prioritize economic development in its strategic plan.
“The long-term vision is to promote business development with a focus on expanding the tax base and creating jobs through collaboration with community partners in order to strengthen, enlarge, and diversify our economy,” she said.
One way the county has recruited industries has been through land in the county designated as an Enterprise Zone. Enterprise Zones, located throughout Virginia, can attract businesses through providing two grants from the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development for job development and real property investment.
Prince Edward’s designation as an Enterprise Zone was set to expire in December 2019. However, the request the county sent to renew the designation was accepted. Prince Edward’s Enterprise Zone is located through the Town of Farmville, as well as through parts of Prospect, Rice, Virso, Meherrin and Keysville.
“Having our county’s enterprise zone renewed will allow for us to continue this partnership and promote economic development through real property investment and job creation,” Pickett said, adding that the grants aren’t only for new businesses coming into the area. “We are able to offer grants and incentives for local businesses to locate or expand within the designated zone and this money helps to offset the costs of the upfront real property investment and/or creation of new jobs for those businesses,” Pickett said.
For business currently undergoing challenges, Pickett said grant funding or assistance from area organizations are available.
“The county has received Rapid Response Grants from the South Central Workforce Development Board and has reached out to numerous businesses who may want to utilize this grant funding,” Pickett said. “The grants are for small businesses who need assistance with certain costs related to the current COVID-19 crisis that mitigate or minimize potential job losses. This may include paying for cleaning services, paying for cleaning supplies and masks, or purchasing items to assist in teleworking.”
To learn more about those resources, contact Pickett at kpickett@ co.prince-edward.va.us.
Though actions are being taken to support area businesses, Watson said the county and town should continue to aim higher.
“We need to think bigger,” Watson said Tuesday. “Now is the time for local governments to work together. There is no reason why the town and county can’t collaborate on economic development. If a business or a family moves to Farmville, both town and county benefit.”
He said sustaining economic development would require more than temporary solutions.
“Instead of putting band-aids on the same old problems by spending a little money here and a little money there, our economic development strategies need to focus on big ideas to grow our community— increasing the number of people living here and the number of people working here. Our K-12 schools don’t need us to simply patch a leaking roof on an outdated building—we need to construct entirely new educational facilities to meet the challenges of tomorrow. We can’t do that with our current local tax revenues,” Watson said