EDINBURG — Over 100 local business owners joined together bright and early Tuesday morning to discuss ways to spur economic development in Shenandoah County. The second annual Economic Development Council breakfast featured two state lawmakers as co-hosts and speakers and a wide range of representatives from state agencies.
State Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, was one of the co-hosts of the breakfast along with Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock. The two lawmakers praised the spirit of partnership as a way to move forward and improve business growth in the valley.
“The turnout here today is evidence of some of the exciting things that are happening economic development-wise across the Shenandoah Valley,” Obenshain said in his opening remarks.
While the theme for the day was partnership and state resources to partner with, Obenshain stressed the differing roles business and government play in economic development.
“The government doesn’t create business. It doesn’t create jobs. It doesn’t create economic development. You all do,” Obenshain said. “Government needs to cooperate, facilitate and assist in economic development.”
Jason El Koubi, executive vice president of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, delivered the keynote speech, which highlighted strengths and weaknesses of Virginia as a place to do business.
Part of what made Virginia so successful in the early 2000s was the close partnership with the federal government. This relationship contributed to its rankings tumble starting in 2009, El Koubi said.
For each of the 10 strengths El Koubi presented to the room, he said there was a counter punch that forces Virginia businesses to rethink how they operate to help the state climb back to a premier place for business in the country.
Partnerships between businesses and higher education are a top priority for El Koubi and the Virginia Economic Development Partnership.
“The single biggest thing we can do to improve our overall economic growth is strengthen our human capital development engine,” El Koubi said. “What I mean is education in the workforce.”
El Koubi said businesses seeking a new job site are looking for 100-200 people who are ready and qualified to work. Creating programs with community colleges and universities that are “customized down to the position level,” according to El Koubi, are the future for economic growth in Virginia.
Gilbert praised the education system in Virginia but agreed he wanted to see more cooperation between businesses and schools.
“We’ve gone to great lengths to partner with higher education,” Gilbert said. “We have this great public education apparatus in Virginia, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be partnering with business to make both better.”
Dennis Dysart, Economic Development Council chairman, explained the role the council is playing in facilitating partnerships and communication between private business and local government. The council has six main areas of interest to facilitate growth in Shenandoah County — public support, workforce development, transit, infrastructure, pro-business attitude and tax incentives.
The council and lawmakers overlap on one area in particular — transit. In their opening remarks, Obenshain and Gilbert mentioned the dire need to improve Interstate 81.
“Interstate 81 remains a challenge and a great benefit to our community,” Gilbert said.
Obenshain said one thing both Democrats and Republicans in Richmond support is overhauling the major thoroughfare that feeds businesses in the valley.
“I know there are a lot of people here in this room who depend on the dependability of transportation and transportation resources,” Obenshain said. “Right now, the transportation system is unreliable. The frequency of stopped traffic and backups on I-81, the severity of wrecks, it’s a problem that’s not going away.”
Dysart issued a challenge to everyone who wants to see continued growth moving forward.
“We tend to polarize things in this county. That is, we are either gonna raise real estate taxes, or we’re going to cut expenses,” Dysart said. “My challenge back to you is — ‘is there a third option?’”