Shenandoah County faces disadvantages in its economic development, according to a recent report.
RKG Associates Inc. developed the 2019 Strategic Economic Development Plan Update for the county. The Shenandoah County Industrial Development Authority Board contracted with RKG to perform the study and develop the report at a cost of $55,185. A Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services grant covered $10,000 of the cost.
Supervisors plan to vote at its next meeting to accept or not to accept the report.
RKG representative Kyle Talente gave a presentation to the Board of Supervisors at its meeting last week highlighting parts of the report. Major findings outlined in the report’s executive summary include:
• The impact of the recession has been more severe in Shenandoah County than the surrounding area in terms of population and household growth.
• The younger workforce leaving the area combined with the high concentration of retirees adversely affects the economic potential for the county.
• The county has not been capturing its “fair share” of non-residential growth.
• Shenandoah County properties need to be more competitive to attract investment.
• Agritourism has continued to grow as an economic engine for the county.
• The county needs to collaborate with the towns to set policies and regulations.
• Building and site-readiness should be a priority.
Strategies to implement the study’s recommendations and goals presented in the report include:
• Improve the county’s competitiveness to keep and attract new business investment.
• Improve the county’s fiscal position through new investment.
• Create a workforce that supports existing and targeted industries.
• Accommodate job growth through a balance between jobs and housing.
• Preserve the quality of life for current and future residents.
• Enhance collaboration regional and statewide economic development partners.
Much of the findings have been discussed in recent years among members of the Shenandoah County IDA as well as supervisors and county staff. The report cites industries the county should target and how to implement the recommendations in the study.
Jenna French, director of Tourism & Economic Development, spoke Tuesday about the takeaways from the report, including the public-engagement component. The department recognizes the importance of helping the public understand the concept of economic development and what makes it successful.
“I would say a major component of that is the collaboration that it takes the efforts of our office, the Chamber of Commerce, our workforce development and educational institutions and the towns, that we can’t just operate in our silos,” French said. “And it takes a lot of us working together because we all bring different strengths to the table, but all of those collectively need to be in place to be successful.”
The study recommended that the county focus its economic development efforts on promoting its existing businesses and industries.
“I think that people often overlook the value of our existing businesses,” French said. “I don’t take for granted that just because Shentel started here and is headquartered here that they’ll always be here, and so it’s up to us to help those businesses be successful and if we can do that, they’ll also be advocates for us to be able to attract other businesses to the area.”
French pointed out that Talente said in his presentation that the county is more likely to see success in helping an existing business grow in terms of overall job creation and capital investment in the area than with outside businesses.
“More often than not those businesses that are already here have a stake in the community,” French said. “They’re proud of the community that they’re in and they want to make that investment locally.
“With outside businesses, you’re competing with other areas and they might not have the same passion for Shenandoah County,” French added. “We’re the same as another community.”
Shenandoah County does compete with Frederick County for businesses and industries but French said the two localities don’t necessarily compare when it comes to economic development.
“I would say, well, Frederick County’s been in this game a little bit longer on a more proactive basis so we’re kind of starting, if you will, at a little bit of a disadvantage,” French said. “We don’t have the staffing and the budget that they’ve (Frederick County) had over the years for economic development.
“They also have had a lot of private developers that have made the investment,” French added. “So when we talk about site readiness and what it takes to get our sites pad-ready, in the cases of Winchester and Frederick County, a lot of times that’s happening by private investors as opposed to public dollars and that can certainly give them an advantage.”
Frederick County’s proximity to Interstates 70 and 81 might give the locality a competitive edge over other counties to the south, French said. But Shenandoah County can pull from the workforce in both Harrisonburg and Winchester.
“I think Shenandoah County is actually in a great place, though, because we’re equidistance between both Harrisonburg and Winchester,” French added. “We’re kind of nicely positioned between the two where people might be willing to drive from either city here to Shenandoah County for the right job opportunities.”
Frederick and Warren counties see economic development funneled through their respective authorities. Shenandoah County has an appointed IDA and French, a government employee who works with the agency. The county IDA serves as one player in the county’s efforts to spur economic development. The IDA owns several properties in the county that the authority board members want to make ready for development. By contrast, in Frederick County, private developers are investing in their sites.
“In Shenandoah County, where have struggled, we don’t have control over a lot of our sites,” French said. “The IDA only owns five properties. The rest are all privately owned.
“We can certainly advise those private property owners of what they need to do to make their sites more marketable,” French said. “But, at the end of the day, that’s their decision whereas the IDA, we can present the information that we have and it’s still their decision as appointees but they’ve definitely shown a drive to make that investment and I know they’re working toward that goal.”
When French started in her role, all IDA-owned properties were classified as Tier 2 or not ready for development. Now, three IDA properties in the North Shenandoah Business Park are closer to being ready for development due to investments the authority made in 2018, French said.