Regional Rural Caucus Meeting Highlights Plans to Drive Broadband, Clean Energy and Economic Develop
TAPPAHANNOCK, Va. – At the Regional Rural Caucus meeting in Tappahannock on July 20, state and local officials shed light on collaborative initiatives designed to boost economic development and job growth locally and across rural Virginia.
State Senator Ryan T. McDougle and Delegate Keith Hodges co-hosted the meeting, with discussions that also touched on new developments in rural broadband internet access availability and how solar has become an increasingly competitive clean energy alternative.
The meeting was organized by the Virginia Rural Center and included participants from the GO Virginia District 6 region, a group of business and civic leaders focused on economic development opportunities specific to the Fredericksburg, Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula region.
Chris Lloyd, Senior Vice President at McGuireWoods Consulting, opened the meeting with updates on the how the GO (Growth and Opportunity) Virginia program, which launched in 2016, works to drive public private partnerships and incentivize localities to work together to create high-paying jobs. Lloyd described how the mission of GO Virginia is critical given the “hollowing out” of Virginia’s economy due to decreased federal military spending in recent years.
“Last year, Hampton Roads had the slowest job growth in the country except for Detroit.” said Lloyd. “Virginia has been resting on its laurels for so long, and we haven’t paid attention to some of the fundamentals, and that’s what GO Virginia is all about.”
Lloyd reported that a support organization and administrative apparatus is now in place in each of the nine GO Virginia regions across the state, along with initial budgets. “In the next six months, I think you’ll see a pretty significant shift to action,” Lloyd said.
After a September board meeting, when plans have been adopted, “that’s when the real money will hit the street,” Lloyd said, referring to the $30 million in collective funding that GO Virginia will divvy up amongst regional council applicants.
Pointing to one large company’s desire to build a manufacturing center of excellence in southwest Virginia, Lloyd said one of the challenges that GO Virginia funding can address is the current disconnect between training programs offered today in state high school curriculums and the skills that businesses say they really need.
“You’re not going to build a new high school with GO Virginia money, but you will use it as an incentive to bring industry together with the community college system, and with the high school system, to really build a curriculum around the jobs of the future.”
William (Billy) Beale, chairman of the GO Virginia District 6 Regional Council, said that locally, a lot of data has been gathered from the five community feedback meetings that have been held on the Middle Peninsula, Caroline County, Fredericksburg and on the Northern Neck.
Feedback will be compiled in a strategic growth plan to be reviewed with the regional council and public in August, with the first applicant projects to be considered in September or October, said Beale.
Approximately $500,000 in project funding will be available to District 6 applicant projects that meet certain matching requirements, with access to additional money in competitive grants from the state board.
Consistently available high-speed broadband internet access was a key theme throughout Thursday night’s meeting, and one that Senator McDougle touched on in his remarks with a pipeline analogy.
“Whether it’s fiber or going through the air, it requires a big pipeline, and the more you squeeze demand on one end, the tighter that pipeline gets,” McDougle said, suggesting that limited broadband access remains a problem to overcome in many rural areas.
“We have lacked in creating a consistent structure all across the state, so that pipeline is flowing as fast as possible to all areas,” said McDougle, reporting that businesses have approached the state before with hundreds of millions of dollars to deploy on capital projects if consistent policies and regulations for infrastructure expansion existed.
Delegate Hodges also discussed broadband, suggesting that more internet access could promote telecommuting in rural areas such as the Middle Peninsula, where 72% of the local workforce leaves the district every day to go to work.
“Forty percent of the Middle Peninsula does not have access to quality broadband,” said Hodges. “And I can’t tell you how many folks I talk to every day who say ‘look, I would love to telecommute.’”
Hodges hinted at possible future initiatives involving new internet service providers who could make “dark” (unused) fiber hidden in many rural areas available for local broadband access.
Broadband and high technology also came up in the remarks made by Matthew Meares, Co-Founder and Principal at Virginia Solar, a Richmond-based solar farm developer who described clean energy projects underway in Essex, Middlesex, Gloucester, King William, Powhatan and other rural areas.
“Four of our projects have been sold to Amazon Web Services,” said Meares, referring to the cloud computing platform subsidiary of Amazon.com. “They want the green power, and that’s a big consideration for them.”
Meares discussed how solar has moved from being a subsidized industry just a few short years ago, to one that is now competitive with nuclear and other power sources.
“The cost of solar in the last two years has dropped by 30%,” said Meares. “That’s why we’re talking about solar now, as we can compete with traditional sources of power.”
“And all of our projects are in rural areas,” Meares said.
Additional regional rural caucus meetings are being held in other GO Virginia Regional Council districts in an effort to align with regional economic development issues and priorities throughout rural Virginia.
During his remarks, Senator McDougle urged rural leaders to collaborate and take advantage of the resources being made available as part of the GO Virginia initiatives and facilitated by the Virginia Rural Center.
“This is the opportunity for all of us to sit down together, as there is something for us to go after now,” McDougle said.