EDINBURG – Economic development doesn’t take place overnight but Shenandoah County is focusing on increasing its profile as a place for business.
On Tuesday morning, leaders from business, local government and state leaders gathered at the Shentel headquarters in Edinburg to discuss the state of economic development in the county. Gathered around long tables decked with fliers and pastries, leaders listened to speakers who gave a rundown of the challenges and opportunities facing economic expansion in the area.
Jay Langston, executive director of the Shenandoah Valley Partnership, a public-private partnership group that helps spur development, congratulated local leaders on their efforts to establish Shenandoah County as a place businesses are looking at.
“From an outsider’s perspective, Shenandoah was not on the map for economic development,” Langston said. “You are now. It’s very exciting for me to see where the county is going because we have a lot that we can do.”
While Langston said he was encouraged by steps the county has taken and some of the built-in benefits it has, he said there are still hurdles the county and the rest of the commonwealth has to clear.
In discussions with businesses all over Virginia, Langston said about 90% of them said their No. 1 concern is workforce development. With near-record lows in unemployment levels, businesses are struggling to find workers to fill positions.
“This is not going to end,” Langston said. “It is here to stay. And that has gone to the top of the list.”
Jenna French, director of tourism and economic development for the county, said she and her team are aware of the problems the county faces and are heading them off.
In addition to seeking a $64,000 grant to improve workforce retention and talent attraction, French said the county Industrial Development Authority is investing in sites it owns to move them closer to being “pad-ready.”
The No. 1 reason Shenandoah County has been overlooked as a place for businesses to come, French said, is a lack of sites that are available and ready for development.
“When private investors or outside businesses are looking at communities … if your land is not ready, they’re going somewhere else because somebody else has the land that is ready,” French said. “This is a critical, foundational piece for us.”
Despite efforts to get sites up to speed, French said the priority is workforce development. Most businesses she said she talks with say the problem is finding people to fill positions.
“Workforce development is critical right now for economic development,” French said. “Not just for the county but nationwide there is a workforce shortage.”
The county is interested in attracting new businesses, French said, but they need to be the right kind of business and something that won’t require hundreds of new employees. If there are too many job openings, she said the fear is the wage rate will inflate because companies are competing for the same pool of employees, stealing them from each other.
Dennis Dysart, president of the Shenandoah County Chamber of Commerce, said it is important to remember that economic development takes time and that relationships between the chamber, the county and private enterprises are laying the groundwork for growth.
“There’s no such thing as ‘just in time’ investment for economic development,” Dysart said. Though decisions made now might not come to fruition, even while elected officials now are still in office, he said it is important to remember that “legacy decisions” are the key to growth for the county.
One factor Shenandoah County does have in its favor, Langston said, is the inherent quality of life built into the valley. As millennials begin to overtake baby boomers in terms of population, quality of life considerations are beginning to creep back up.
“Millennials are making a choice of where to live first before career,” Langston said. “We’re trying to match the needs with opportunities in terms of education in trying to provide that.”