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Regional Rural Caucus Meeting Recaps Economic Development Innovation in Shenandoah Valley and Centra

HARRISONBURG, Va. – State officials, civic leaders and educators touted new initiatives involving wind energy and industrial hemp while updating plans for economic development in the Shenandoah Valley and Central Virginia at the Regional Rural Caucus meeting in Harrisonburg on August 30th.

The meeting, held on the campus of James Madison University, was organized by the Virginia Rural Center and co-hosted by Senator Emmett Hanger and Delegate Steve Landes. Speakers and attending civic and business leaders focused on economic development opportunities specific to the defined territories of the GO Virginia District 8 region, representing the Shenandoah Valley, and the District 9 region comprised of a portion of central Virginia.

“The whole idea of how we are moving our economy forward is to diversify, to become less dependent on federal contracts or federal spending in defense and other areas,” said Landes. “That’s not to say we want to give up anything that the federal government may spend on defense contracts and other areas, but we have got to become less dependent on the dollars that come from Washington.”

Senator Hanger echoed the need for economic growth and addressing tax disparities in his remarks.

“In the short run, we have to intensify our efforts to grow our economy and in part, we need to focus on our tax base and disparities that are becoming more obvious around the state,” said Hanger during his remarks. “We’re going to be looking at who’s paying for what, and who should be paying for what, between the state and local governments.”

The GO (Growth and Opportunity) Virginia program, which launched in 2016, aims to address those challenges, working to drive public private partnerships and incentivize localities to work together to create high-paying jobs.

“The goal of our region is to create more job opportunities that pay over $41,000 a year,” said George Pace, GO Virginia Region 8 Council Chairman, who provided an update on program planning in his region.

Pace said that the GO Virginia staff support structure in Region 8 includes four organizations including the Shenandoah Valley Partnership, the Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Commission, the Central Shenandoah Planning District Commission and the Shenandoah Valley Workforce Development Board.

In total, the money allocated to Region 8 economic development projects totals $930,000, with an additional $11.3 million in project funding to be divvyed up amongst all regions on a competitive basis. All approved GO Virginia projects must include matching funds provided by public and/or private entities and must be sponsored by at least two localities.

“It’s not an insignificant amount of money,” said Pace.

Industry sectors of focus for Region 8 projects include healthcare, IT telecommunications, light manufacturing, transportation and logistics, and financial and business services.

Brian Cole, Council Chairman of GO Virginia Region 9 also provided an update on developments in his region, highlighting talent development, growing existing businesses and start-up innovation as a focus areas in rural central Virginia.

Commenting on the makeup of the council, Cole described diversity as a key factor. “Our goal in defining the initial composition of this region 9 council was to create a group that was a diverse as possible in all ways, especially with respect to geography, business sector, race and gender.”

“We felt like if the more diverse the group sitting around the GO Virginia regional council table, the better our outcomes would be.”

Both Cole and Pace said the Growth and Diversification plans for their respective regions were submitted to the state GO Virginia board on August 25 for approval.

“The growth and diversification plan is the benchmark by which GO VA region funding requests are measured,” said Cole.

With plan approvals in process, Cole and Pace indicated that outreach and awareness initiatives will be underway soon, giving the public, businesses and local governments a chance to provide input on project ideas.

Dr. Sharon Lovell, Dean of the College of Health and Behavioral Studies at James Madison University (JMU) who provided the venue for the meeting noted a focus on providing healthcare graduates who serve rural areas.

“Our academic programs enable our students to provide services and gain experience in education that connects them with the needs of the rural areas right here around Harrisonburg and Rockingham County,” said Lovell. “And we’ve been able to achieve some pretty great things, such as receiving funding from the Health and Human Services Administration program to allow our physician students to work in the Harrisonburg Rockingham Free Clinic.”

In addition to healthcare, clean energy is seen as another area of economic development opportunity for rural areas.

Dr. Jonathan Miles, Director of the Center for Wind Energy at JMU described how recent developments in government policy and customer demand are making wind power increasingly viable commercially.

“Virginia is one of a few states in the U.S. that still hasn’t managed to develop commercial wind,” said Miles, but that wind resources do exist in open rural areas around the Shenandoah Valley, and that projects that have been largely dormant “may be seeing an opportunity for some revival.”

Miles said that the key to the expansion of clean energy sources such as wind and solar in Virginia is customer demand. “It’s driven largely by customers who are either in the state or want to be active in the state saying ‘we want to be here, but we want clean energy and we want to produce it here in the state,’”

According to Miles, Rockingham County is unique among other rural wind-endowed localities.

“We’ve got good wind resources here, and we’ve got a strong and diverse economy and a base of consumers of electricity, including education and industrial institutions.”

Other new economic development opportunities for rural areas could someday include industrial hemp, according to Lindsay Reames, Assistant Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry.

Reames described how hemp is a native crop and used to be grown throughout the southeast U.S., but was added to the federal controlled substance list in the mid 1900s given its relationship to marijuana. The big difference, said Reames, is that marijuana has a THC level of 25 percent compared to less than 0.3 percent for industrial hemp.

“Private industry is seeing some potential” for industrial hemp, Reames said, as the plants stalks and seeds can be harvested for biomedical uses, fiber and oils.

Currently, industrial hemp production in Virginia is limited to research efforts while federal legislation is in development to attempt to remove the plant from the controlled substance list.

“Right now we have to start with just getting a seed in the ground to see if we can produce it an economically feasible fashion,” said Reames.

Virginia Rural Center Executive Director Christy Morton closed the meeting with an update on rural broadband developments, including initiatives in Southern Virginia that involve partnerships with major companies like Microsoft and regional providers such as Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities Corporation (MBC).

Efforts include a recently-launched last-mile broadband program, and Microsoft chose rural Southern Virginia as a pilot location for its new Rural Airband Initiative. The initiative seeks to connect homes in rural Charlotte and Halifax Counties to the internet with a variety of new technologies, including wireless signals delivered over TV “white spaces,” or unused frequency spectrum.

The meeting was the latest in a series of regional rural caucus meetings being held in each GO Virginia Regional Council district to drive alignment with regional economic development issues and priorities across rural Virginia.

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