Commentary: Economic development hampered by lack of strategy, investment in future

A frequent topic of formal and informal discussion and deliberation in the county board room and staff offices is economic development – as it should be. But before you delve deep, it is important to consider the extent to which these discussions are forward thinking and fact-based. For example, did Shenandoah County really “shut the door on growth in 2010” with changes made to zoning ordinances?

Shedding more light on the issue is the March 2017 report, “The Changing Manufacturing Workforce in the Shenandoah Valley: 2016 Update” by Chmura Economics and Analytics. This comprehensive and detailed report was prepared under the auspices of the Shenandoah Valley Workforce Development Board. The Shenandoah Valley as described in the report covers Frederick County to Rockbridge County, and includes Bath and Highland counties.

One of the report’s most relevant findings is a chart  titled “Job Gains – Virginia Economic Development Partnership Project Announcements in the Shenandoah Valley 2010-2016” that shows Shenandoah County with the second largest share of manufacturing job gains in the valley at 24 percent only behind Augusta County at 29 percent. What does that mean? It means that a quarter of all manufacturing jobs announced in the valley from 2010 to 2016 were in Shenandoah County.

Another relevant data point in the report is that the average wages for manufacturing employees in the Shenandoah Valley are $50,366, exceeding the average region wage by more than $11,000 and contradicts another myth that all manufacturing jobs are low wage. Manufacturing is still the largest industry sector in the valley and it should be supported and recognized for supplying good paying jobs in the county.

It is important to remember that economic development comes in many forms. From new businesses coming into an area, to expansion and growth of existing businesses, to companion businesses that support major industries like agriculture and tourism. Expansion of existing local businesses, a strategy known as economic gardening, is the primary method of economic development called for in the 2013 Shenandoah County Economic Development Strategic Plan and is shown to far exceed job growth resulting from new industry. Put another way, if we put all our eggs into the basket of landing a big fish we have a limited chance of success. But, if we have a balanced approach to attracting new industry while also supporting our existing businesses we greatly improve our chances of growing and diversifying the local economy.

How do we do that? For starters, we need county leadership to propose solutions and strategies to develop our local workforce, build connections among businesses, and improve our quality of life to remain competitive as an attractive place to live and work.

Our Board of Supervisors needs to work with the School Board, Triplett Tech, Lord Fairfax Community College and its Workforce Solutions Center to expand programs that teach basic work skills, work readiness, transferable skills, and promote technical careers to our young people. Per the report, technology and skill requirements in today’s manufacturing sector are changing rapidly, and when combined with an aging workforce it highlights the need for more priority placed on workforce development. Over the last few years this has not happened.

Our supervisors need to increase town-county communication and collaboration in developing a compatible economic development strategy based on cooperation in land use planning. Joint planning between the county and the towns is an important strategy to help preserve our county’s productive agricultural lands and encourage growth and prosperity in and around our historic towns. Growth in and around our towns also increases housing affordability by offering more options, keeps the cost of providing public services lower and strengthens local businesses on Main Street and beyond.

Our county needs to seize the opportunities in front of us and leverage local and regional resources available to become more forward thinking and strategically placed to grow and prosper. Virginia has been slower than other states to come out of the most recent recession and depending on the county’s next moves, Shenandoah County runs the risk of being left behind. In March, Colliers International listed the Shenandoah Valley as one of their 10 Emerging U.S. Industrial Markets to Watch in 2017, so let’s act now to ensure we not only stay in the game but lead the way!

Joan Comanor is chairwoman of Shenandoah Forum, which is a group of citizen volunteers established in 2001 to encourage active and informed citizen participation in maintaining Shenandoah County’s rural, agricultural and historic character, a healthy environment, and sustainable economy.